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.
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.
by Steve Habrat
Did you miss him? Robert Downey Jr.’s motor-mouthed brawler/detective Sherlock Holmes blasts his way back into theaters and the people are flocking to his latest case. While I found myself smitten with Downey Jr.’s magnetic performance during the first case, I found the events swirling around him too tortuous. I understand what British director Guy Ritchie is trying to achieve, which is to put us in Holmes’ rutty boots and work along side him in racing the clock and solving the diabolical plot. Yet Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows gets tangled up in its own reveals, twists, turns, and fake-outs. I found myself backtracking to pinpoint which character Holmes and Jude Law’s Dr. Watson were chattering on about. Do not interpret this as me saying the film was over my head, but I just wish these movies would slow down for a minute and let me catch up before it dashes off again. The film leaves you mentally exhausted. I suppose that the modish action sequences are there to let us rest our brains, but Ritchie goes above and beyond the normal slam-bang intensity that is rampaging through action films of late. He stages some of the most rousing action sequences of the year, with precise slow-motion halts to give us a clear glimpse of the bone snapping action. It’s exhilarating and you can’t peel your eyes from it. So much for a second to catch my breath.
After a string of seemingly unrelated crimes throughout Europe, the peculiar detective Holmes (Played by Downey Jr.) suspects that there is more to these strange events than meets the eye. He begins applying his usual unorthodox detective work and enlists the help of the less-than-patient Dr. John Watson (Played by Law) to aid him in discovering the truth. The trail leads them to Professor James Moriarty (Played by Jared Harris), a genius that can match Holmes every step of the way. As Holmes tries to piece together what all these crimes are leading up to, he crosses paths with a dagger-throwing gypsy named Sim (Played by Noomi Rapace), who is the next target of Moriarty. Sim proves to be useful in aiding Holmes and Dr. Watson in figuring out what Moriarty’s plot is, which turns out to be more destructive than Holmes could have ever imagined.
I don’t really want to dive into many more details about the plot of the second entry to the Sherlock Holmes franchise; the slow reveals of this one prove to be a hell of a lot more interesting than the first installment. A Game of Shadows benefits from a much better villain, one who can go toe-to-toe with Holmes both in a fight and in brains too. The film does have some incredibly exhaustive art direction, featuring some lavish costumes, realistic CGI, and some sets that are to die for. It maintains the steam-punk industrial aesthetic that Ritchie established with the first film. Yet my qualm about Holmes stems from its overly busy inner workings, mostly in the plot department. Everyone speaks in a thick British accent and rambles on about characters that are hard to remember. Trust me, there are a TON of characters so I would advise you bring a notebook to scribble them all down in. The film also moves at a breakneck speed that left me wishing I could just have a brief intermission and review everything that had just happened before piling on more plot points. This one will leave you exhausted but I commend its unremitting energy.
The one aspect that I love about Sherlock Holmes is the driven, fanatical performance from Downey Jr. I think he may be a bit sharper with Holmes than he is with Tony Stark, a role many love a bit more than Holmes. Credit should be given to his spot-on and rich British accent that pours effortlessly through his mumbling mouth. He sometimes comes off as a ranting lunatic that would seem more at home in a straightjacket rather than an overcoat and bowler cap. He’s unpredictable (He shows up on a train dressed as a woman), brash, and poised in every move he makes. When at one point he admits he made a mistake and lives are lost, we feel his distress in himself. It’s only one of two times we see a crack in his self-assured manner. Law’s Dr. Watson acts as the voice of reason when Holmes goes on a brain-frying rampage. Law also has perfect comedic timing to Downey Jr.’s deadpan delivery. Truth is, their relationship is given room to grow and evolve here. We get to see their affection for one another. They are an odd couple but, hey, opposites attract right?
Moriarty is a memorable villain, one who spits his words out with vitriol to spare. He truly does have a diabolical plot and I love his final moments with Holmes. Harris look like he had a good time playing evil. Rachel McAdams returns for a brief cameo as Adler, one that seems a little bit pointless, as she wasn’t in the original all that much. Rapace, for all the celebration around her performance in the Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems to just be a pretty face stuck between Law and Downey Jr.’s stubbly faces. I would have liked to see more range from her, as all Ritchie has her doing is running from bullets, hitmen, and cannonballs. Stephen Fry turns up as Mycroft, Sherlock’s posh brother who is just as deadpan and batty as the good detective.
As someone who is always rallying for more intellectual blockbusters, I have to hand it to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. It refuses to dumb itself down too much, even if it is just escapist fluff. If there is another Sherlock Holmes, and I’m sure there will be, I would love to see the screenwriter shave things down a little bit and I’d love for Ritchie to ease up on the pace. Don’t be in such a rush to push Holmes through the case, as I enjoy watching him tick. I’ll definitely have thirds on the relationship between Holmes and Dr. Watson, as that acts as the heart and soul for this franchise. The action should also be noted, as it turns out to be much more epic the second time around. Just wait until you see the gunfight between Holmes, Sim, and Watson against a gang of German soldiers. All I will say is that it involves stellar slow-motion effects and a gun named Little Hansel. Funnier than the original, a bit more straight forward (Just slightly!), with style and energy to burn, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is the ideal thrill ride to distract you from all those Christmas presents you still have to buy.
by Steve Habrat
I wonder what the film snobs who snarled at J.J. Abrams and Steve Spielberg’s wide-eyed tribute to the escapist cinema Super 8 are now thinking about Martin Scorsese’s turn at bat. Truth be told, Scorsese’s Hugo is quite possibly the best movie I have seen all year. With 3D that rivals Avatar’s, some of the finest acting from child stars I have seen since Super 8, an extraordinary performance from Sacha Baron Cohen, and a reserved respect for classic cinema, Hugo is a sumptuous revelation that will live on for years to come. In fact, I’d be so bold to say that if Scorsese retired and never made another picture, there is no finer way for him to go out than with this film. Hugo places Scorsese’s heart on his sleeve, which is quite rare when we go back over his resume (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Departed, Shutter Island). It’s rare you find a film of this caliber, one that manages to capture the director’s spirit and boy if Scorsese’s spirit isn’t incandescent with childlike wonder. And from a guy who has made so many films about tough guys, who’d have thought he was a gigantic softie?
Hugo breathes new life into this cookie cutter Oscar season, loaded with the usual fare (The Descendents, J. Edgar, My Week with Marilyn, Shame), and it is utterly refreshing. Set in Paris during the 1930s, orphaned Hugo Cabret (Played by the breathtaking Asa Butterfield) tends to the clocks behind the walls of a bustling train station. He steals food from the cafés that line the station, people watches from behind the towering clock faces, dodges the ever-watchful Station Inspector (Played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who has never been better) and flits about the winding steam rooms and hidden grinding gears. In his spare time, Hugo sneaks around the station stealing trinkets that will help him fix a mysterious automaton, which he was building with his father (Played by Jude Law) before his father was killed in a fire. He steals parts from a toyshop owned by the bitter George Méliès (Played by Ben Kingsley). One day he gets caught by Méliès and as punishment has his notebook containing the instructions on how to fix the automaton taken away. Méliès tells Hugo that he must work for him and earn the notebook back. While working for Méliès, Hugo meets Isabelle (Played by the always great Chloe Grace Moretz), a young girl who hangs around the toyshop. They strike up a friendship and she begins to help Hugo on his quest to finish the automaton and Hugo aids her in her quest for adventure.
While there isn’t a kink to be found in the storytelling, the performances are all wonderful, and the film hits every emotional mark it needs to, the film soars because of it’s jaw-dropping 3D. It’s on the level of Avatar and even surpassing it in some respects. What I believe good 3D should accomplish is making me feel like I inhabit the world that the characters do. This is what saved Avatar and coaxed back audiences to see it again. You felt like you were on Pandora with the characters, not like you were just peering through a large opening. We are invited in to the world that Hugo Cabret explores on a daily basis. The opening moments of the film pulled the rug out from under me and I felt like I was dashing along that twisting labyrinth of metal and steam. While watching Hugo, I felt like I had jumped into a time machine and sped off into history.
Speaking of history, Hugo gives a concise overview of the history of cinema, even if it is succinct. These are told in minor flashbacks that tickle the viewers eyes by flashing clips of old silent classics, stock footage of WWI, and techniques applied by Scorsese himself. The film contains numerous scenes in which the actors have little to no dialogue and let their performances evoke the spirits of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and more. At times I almost found myself wishing that Scorsese had filmed Hugo in black and white, just to give the audience the full effect. I guess the producers may have feared it would overshadow the recent release The Artist, which is also a testament to early cinematic works. As someone who has studied the history of the medium, I was enthralled with Scorsese animated trip through history all while constantly nudging my friends and gasping over the nods to old films. Scorsese appears to never feel obliged to tip his hat and it felt like this was coming from the deepest depths of his magic loving heart.
Magic is the core of Hugo, as Scorsese professes his undying love for it every step of the way. He couples magic with imagination and our willingness to dream. He firmly declares that film is our way of capturing our dreams and showing them to the world. This goes against what is taught at stuffy film schools where they say film should not be a form of escapism but rather make political, moral, and social proclamations. For those of us who grew up marveling at the medium, this shatters what we have built film up to be and I ask why they must defile what is sacred to us fans? It must be quite a blow to their egos, as film schools like the one I attended gushed over Scorsese and his gritty works. It turns out they were wrong about that little guy. He dares to dream with the rest of us.
Hugo boats some truly exquisite performances from its young child stars. Kingsley conveys anger, resentment, and redemption with grace. Sacha Baron Cohen is Oscar worthy as the strict Station Inspector who has confidence issues and a hopeless crush on a pretty and fair Lisette (Played by Emily Mortimer). Asa Butterfield’s Hugo shines the brightest of all and he nabs our empathy just as nonchalantly as he takes a pastry from a café. Chloe Grace Moretz is flawless as always, but then again she has been a talent to keep an eye on since she broke out with last years stellar Kick-Ass. Christopher Lee pops up as an observant and baritoned bookshop owner who finds himself puzzled over the independent Hugo. All of these performances compliment each other and the true marvel is the performances achieved without copious amounts of dialogue. It’s like they are from a different era.
Hugo gathers it’s momentum in the first few seconds of flashing across the screen and it never slows down. Everything just clicks in this picture. You’ll find yourself grinning over it if you’re a film fan and enamored with it even if you are just a casual viewer. Scorsese pleads with us not to contain our imagination and our passion for the things that we love. They should guide us through this twisting and complicated world and allow us to discover what our purpose is in this life. Thanks for reminding me to dream, Marty, and assuring me that it’s more than okay to do so. Oh, and thanks for Hugo, the best film of 2011.
by Corinne Rizzo
For a film so packed with disturbing content, Contagion is an awfully quiet display of events. Everything from the colors on the screen to the music and dialogue, this film is just a somber and quiet depiction of the spread of what eventually becomes a SARS like epidemic, a drastically contagious virus that seems to induce comas and seizures on the affected.
Unlike many films of contraction, Contagion lacked that sense of panic one felt during Outbreak or 28 Days Later. The skilled and mature cast of characters lends the film a contained sense of control. Each actor in his or her role is wholly believable and to the viewer entirely professional. Here’s an idea of who we are dealing with here:
Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Lawrence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Eliot Gould and Demetri Martin (of all people).
Now if you’re anywhere near my age, you watched Matt Damon play Will Hunting and sort of even swooned after him, if that’s your thing. We saw Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tennenbaums and laughed at her cynicism, Kate Winslet—best known for Titantic and the list goes on to Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix. If Contagion had anything working for it, it was its cast, as a film on this subject matter has long been a dead horse beaten.
And that is where Contagion is different. It begins with Beth Emhoff (Paltrow) returning from some corporate event in Hong Kong, which seems a bit cliché considering the past American paranoia from things like bird flu or H1N1, but the film isn’t so quick to place blame anywhere entirely. In fact, a web is created between the affected persons and the range of distance between the infected is wide. Suddenly, a mystery is being woven and it’s almost undetectable that you’re working toward the solution, as the film takes a drastic diversion from discovering the origin of the disease and containing and curing it.
The web of the infected begins with Paltrow’s character, or so that is where the viewer is introduced to the illness. The film takes the viewer home to Minneapolis where Emhoff calls home. At the same time the virus goes (no pun intended) viral by ways of a character played by Jude Law, Alan Krumwiede, a free lance journalist/blogger bent on exposing what he believes is the truth about anything, no focusing on the virus and it’s cure.
What’s interesting about the film and what makes it different from a plethora of other movies based on epidemic is that Contagion spreads no real panic among the audience. Sure, the audience is aware of the severity of the disease at hand. Within hours of contraction, the illness seems to take entire families down. But, as aforementioned, there is a quiet sense of survival among the main characters. Those who fall victim understand that they took the risk in the first place. Those who watched their loved ones succumb didn’t understand, but still never tried to.
For instance Mitch Emhoff (Damon) finds that he is immune to the virus and works silently and diligently to keep him and his daughter from demise.
As the film progresses we see Erin Mears struggle with her contraction, but handles it with dignity and understanding when, despite her status among the government, she learns that being airlifted is a waste of government resources.
The dignified sense of survival is what creates this quiet feeling among Contagion and it is clear to the viewer that the cast, well chosen and well played, are responsible for that feeling as each cast member is one in good standing with the Academy and moviegoers alike.
A viewer might enter the theater ready for a gory mess of death and mass graves and while death and mass graves are a sure part of the film, it is not those scenes which stick with the audience. It is scenes like a gnarly autopsy of Paltrow’s character followed by a classic line between the two examiners, “Should we call someone?” says one hazmat suited examiner. “Call everyone,” proclaims the other.
The film’s story unfolds between many different scenarios and that is where the viewer becomes distracted. Instead of asking ourselves about the origin of the disease, we find ourselves deep in the discovery of hard working biologists trying to cure it or the lives of those trying to avoid it. The audience understands that the primary question was that of origin, but the film leads us on such a chase that it’s easy to feel caught off guard in the last two minutes when everything changes.
The history of the disease, of the travelers and the scientists unfolds before the viewers eyes and before the audience knows it, the credits are rolling. And the unraveling is just as calm and quiet as the onset of disease.
There is a lot that happens in the film, but keeping ears and eyes open, Soderbergh keeps the audience informed and interested without the gore and total societal breakdown involved in a good portion of other epidemic based films. Granted, there are moments of pillaging and anarchy and downright human survival bullshit that makes a viewer want to yell “that doesn’t help the situation, assholes!” it’s just muted and the viewer is put a distance that is almost voyeuristic.
Top Five Reasons to See Contagion:
1) Demetri Martin plays a scientist!
2) Eliot Gould’s character rocks this line, “Blogging is not reporting, it is graffiti with punctuation.”
3) You get to see Gwyneth Paltrow’s cranium sawed off.
4) You’ll never guess the combination of crap that has to happen to incubate such a disease.
5) The tagline “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone,” is badass.