Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh

Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh

Side Effects is the new thriller from Steven Soderbergh about a young woman’s (played by Ronney Mara) world being turned around when a drug prescribed by her psychiatrist (played by Jude Law) has unexpected side effects.

Similar to Lian Johnson’s Looper last year, Side Effects is a film that continually mutates its genome and plays its surprises based off the audience’s familiarized expectations of genre convention. I did not know anything about the film going in. In its first act, I thought it was a serious issue-tainment film about the modern practice of prescription medicine. To the end of the first third, it shifted into a new place. By the mid-point, I just stopped trying to guess where it was going to go and decided to just enjoy the ride. I was on the edge of my seat and did not have any grasp of what was to come. Where it ends up is insane and it will divide audiences but I much rather credit the ride more than the final destination.

Rooney Mara plays the pain of depression in a very realistic fashion. At times, it felt like watching a documentary. That’s how real she played it. This performance could have easily fit into a serious drama about having depression if they chose to continue with the first third of the issue-tainment portion.

Jude Law has the heaviest task to do because he balances a lot of the film as it goes through its many tonal shifts. As the psychiatrist character, he is the most reliable character the audience can trust and there is a lot less wiggle room for his character to suddenly change along with the genre shifting or plot twists. He manages them well and does a good job anchoring the film as it gets crazier in the third act.

I haven’t seen Chicago but Catherine Zeta-Jones’ acting in the past has always been distracting to me because she’s constantly preening for the camera. She is too aware of the camera positions and constantly adjusts how much to tilt her head, dilate her pupils or purse her lips for each shot (she’s doing up in the poster! See above). It’s like she’s constantly posing for still-based fashion photography slideshow instead of performing for a time-based forward-motion medium. It doesn’t help the story move forward if you’re constantly asking the audience to ogle over you. Yes, you are pretty, I get it. Kudos to you! I know I am ranting now, but that’s how frustrated it made me.

That aside, she is also playing up a campiness that seems tonally incongruent to the other performances in the film. It’s in her tongue-in-cheek delivery of the dialogue. She’s the odd one out of the entire cast and threatens the overall quality of the movie. Fortunately her part is a supporting one and she manages through the film on wafer thin ice.

Steven Soderbergh says this is his last film. Not that I really ever believe it when any director/celebrity/athlete say they’re retiring anyways. Side Effects is a decent way to go out but I certainly hope this isn’t his last film.

Related Reviews
Behind the Candelabara by Steven Soderbergh
Haywire by Steven Soderbergh

The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson

The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson

The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran struggling to adjust to a post-war society who meets Lancaster Dodd (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a leader of a religious movement known as “The Cause,” who sees something in Quell and accepts him into the movement. Freddie takes a liking to “The Cause” and begins traveling with Dodd along the East Coast to spread the teachings.

The fact that the film is a fictitious revision of the life stories of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (here they call it “The Cause” to avoid a lawsuit) and John Steinbeck, and the lack of a strong plot makes The Master an odd dodgy animal of a film. I cannot quite grasp what the film’s themes were or its central message – this was probably Paul Thomas Anderson’s intention. Why PTA intended such a cinematic experience is not entirely clear within the film. It’s surprisingly not interested in the inner workings of Scientology or cult organization. It’s about men wanting to find and heal their souls after a post-war period. One man has no idea how to do it and the other claims to have all the answers. Psychology has not yet established itself with people as recognized science yet and therein arises the cult of The Cause. And somewhere in there is a rite of passage, coming-of-age story. It is fleeting; I cannot exactly pinpoint it.

Having said all that, Paul Thomas Anderson does capture something very engaging- the central relationship between Freddy Quell and Lancaster Dodd is fascinating. Joaquin Phoenix convincingly embodies pain of a man who’s been through war. He contorts his body as if he were literally “beaten out of shape”. I read that after a few drafts of the screenplay, PTA decided that it should be Freddy’s story and I do think this is probably the better decision. He is the more sympathetic character simply because he’s trying to work through his past pain and fit in society. That alone almost justifies his frequent bursts of violence.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is great and the director presents the character Lancaster Dodd as if he were a salesman. The character would have lost its charm if the film shown him behind the scenes coming up with his questionable methods of healing. I’m glad they didn’t. There’s a interrogation-like healing session between Dodd and Quell where we see his ideas being physicalized that I really enjoyed. Also, I particularly liked scenes where Lancaster Dodd’s theories are questioned and he is forced to justify his theories publicly. It is very truthful how Hoffman presented how people like this never argue properly when their ideas are challenged. They tend to shrimp out of the argument or snap into an aggressive state. And yes, on that note…

There is a violence lurking beneath both men that makes them volatile characters. It becomes the key thing that connects their souls together and in a way you can call this a hetero-love story between two men. It also becomes the key thing that makes them engaging to the audience. I was unnerved about where they were going to end up. If it were not for this strong central relationship, I probably would have tuned out of the film. Both Hoffman and Phoenix’s performances were deservedly Oscar-nominated.

Jonny Greenwood’s unsettling musical score is noteworthy. It is never directly punctuates what is happening in the moment and it does not musically sync to specific cuts or montage. I started asking myself, why was the music unsettling me? How was it serving the film? For me (and I don’t mean this in a reductive way), the music was implying something outside what was happening onscreen and it suggested the idea of “What if Lancaster Dodd’s methods are effective?” “What if he is indeed helping people?” “What are the consequences if Dodd is just making it all up?” It had me thinking about the growing amount of people that were joining The Cause and how joining a cult may have seemed like an intelligent solution to post-traumatic stress at that time. Someone should give Greenwood an award for this.

The Master may frustrate some audiences because it leaves empty space where one would expect something concrete. It’s all very well done and even with empty space, I think most people will get something out of it. It’s masterful how PTA still managed to make it an engaging experience relying on so little. Exiting a film puzzling over it’s themes can be mentally fun, but that experience does not measure up to going through a fully satisfying catharsis. And that’s why, for my money, There Will Be Blood remains the superior Paul Thomas Anderson film.

Warm Bodies by Jonathan Levine

Warm Bodies by Jonathan Levine

 

 

In a post-apocalyptic zombie world, R (played by Nicholas Hoult), a zombie who is trying to cling onto his humanity, rescues human Julie Grigio (played by Theresa Palmer) from an zombie attack. The two form a relationship that offsets a sequence of events that might transform the entire lifeless world.

When Twilight first came out in 2008, there was a common critique going around that the day-walking glittering vampires depicted in the film were not true vampires. It was an interesting point that I had no answer for at the time, but it got me thinking a lot. Is it okay to change the rules for a movie monster? If vampires can walk during the daytime, does that negate the established rules for a vampire? If zombies can sprint after you, are they still technically zombies? And more so, within in it’s own narrative goals, does committing to the traditional definitions of a movie monster even matter?

Warm Bodies settled this question. We’ll come back to this later…

It is artful how much humanity they were able to inject into Nicholas Hoult’s lead zombie character R. They use every cinematic trick in the book including close-up reaction shots, going into his thoughts and dreams and even a witty dry voice-over device. Furthermore, R does something at the beginning of the film that would have easily lost the audience to care about him but yet the film still had me rooting for him and his romance with Julie.

I never could have imagined a love story being played from this angle. This film is very aware of this and proceeds to guide the audience by drawing from recognizable story tropes such as teen romance, zombie horror, apocalyptic science fiction and a fairy tale aesthetic. In this stir fry chop suey fashion, there is a genuine love story running as a thorough line but the story tropes are tossed around for laughs. It’s a fun experience as you see the film’s play on these different story tropes. I.e. “Oh, it’s the musical montage where they fall in love. Oh, he just did the thing that will make the girl go away! Oh, that’s how he’s going to win her back!”

On a side note, Rob Cordroy is funny as the comic sidekick. As this film is meant to be a parody of Twilight, it’s kind of funny how Theresa Palmer looks like a blonde Kristin Stewart.

So finally, does committing to the traditional definition of a movie monster matter? No, it does not matter. The key is setting up your monster to suit the goals of the story. In this case, it’s humanizing the lead zombie character and making us believe that someone might fall in love with him. The film takes its time to set up its own rules and slowly supports its goals like a well-written thesis paper. The creation of the Bonies (the zombies that are “zombie-er” than the “normal” zombies) is a smart idea and it fits rather neatly with providing a more evil, scarier embodiment to act as the antagonist. Yes, these filmmakers changed the rules, but justifiably so.

In the end, it works. I laughed plenty of times. It’s smart, knows its audience and very clear on it’s goals. Sitting in the theater, I heard separate ‘girl laughs’ and ‘guy laughs’ from different parts of the theater throughout the screening. And that’s a key thing about Warm Bodies, the tone is so mathematically tweaked to a tee that both the girlfriend and boyfriend can enjoy it as a date movie together. There is something fun to enjoy for everybody. Yes, even the horror purists too.

Rust and Bone by Jacques Audiard

Rust and Bone by Jacques Audiard

Put in charge of his young son Sam, Alain (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) leaves Belgium for Antibes to live with his sister and her husband as a family. Alain’s bond with Stephanie, a killer whale trainer, grows deeper after Stéphanie (played by Marion Cotillard) suffers a horrible accident where she loses her legs.

I have struggled with writing about this movie for months now. I have accepted the fact hat this review just simply won’t do the film any justice. So I’m going to just go straight into it…

Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts both give great performances. I don’t know if it’s because I find Marion Cotillard really attractive or if she’s just really engages me an actress, but in every one of her scenes, I feel like I’m watching someone suffer right in front of me. This is probably what people were describing back then when Marlon Brando broke out with method acting in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Matthias Schoenaerts plays Ali like a brute animal that wants to communicate but doesn’t know how to show his soft side. The way Ali fathers his son Sam is upsetting yet very engaging to watch. It dispels the idea that a lead character doesn’t necessarily have to be likable as long as he’s watchable. We can see how he is trying to be better, even though he can’t help but be himself.

Ali and Stéphanie are one of the the most memorable onscreen couples I have seen in a while. These two characters cannot be anymore different from each other and yet I believed their relationship. It feels so real the way the two leads play it.

The film is gritty, poetic and even elusive at times. It hit a very deep note inside me and that makes it very hard to talk about the film’s inner workings. It made me think of how love between two people really is very dependent on need, circumstance and timing. Ali’s animalistic alpha male nature is the exact thing that feeds into Stéphanie’s trauma from the tragic loss of her legs. He is so straightforward about having sex to the point where he almost doesn’t even notice she is legless, which in turn is what begins to make feel Stéphanie normal and even beautiful again. This slowly lifts her out of depression and she regains meaning in her life and supports Ali’s animal nature (in the form of underground boxing), which is the exact personality trait that always gets him in trouble.

Against the film’s gritty raw palette, the unfolding of their relationship was very touching and deeply romantic as I felt what every action and reaction means internally and externally to both characters. When two people fall for each other, it feels like they’re creating their own private internal world together. This movie made me feel like I am watching that world slowly being created between these two people. I liked being inside their idiosyncratic world. Even though the actual situation would seem depressing, on the contrary, it’s executed with such vivid detail with so many poetic truthful moments that it made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. One noteworthy poetic moment was a scene where Stéphanie revisits her workplace and regains meaning to move on from her injury as she watches a killer whale through a tank.

Some have said that the ending feels abrupt. I did not feel that way. The melodramatic emotions all properly build powerfully underneath throughout the movie till it wells up and completely geysers its way to a satisfying finish. It did not feel like a jump at all. Some can say it was a hokey cheesy way to end the movie and that can be a legitimate critique but it worked for me. Rust and Bone punched my gut, turned me into a sap and left me speechless.

It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in 2012. I tremendously enjoyed it and recommend it to anyone. I need to see The Prophet now.

Hitchcock by Sacha Gervasi and The Girl by Julian Jarrold

Foreword: a solution to reviewing two similarly-themed films

On my “Common film review clichés to be avoided” page, I have previously stated that I will critique every film as a standalone piece of work. Recently, a special case has surfaced that now has me reconsidering a possible exception to my previously established rule.

Two films about Alfred Hitchcock released this year: Hitchcock and The Girl.

There is an element of timing for when a movie is released that affects one’s experience of how someone views the subject matter afterwards. Theoretically from a film critic’s mentality, two films sharing the same subject matter should not matter and on principle every piece of work should be critiqued as a standalone piece. However, I am too aware that The Girl will be overlooked because Hitchcock has bigger stars in it, a stronger promotional campaign and a theatrical release.

Funny enough, Toby Jones, who plays Alfred Hitchcock in The Girl, has gone through a similar “double case” with playing Truman Capote. I am no expert on Truman Capote, but from what I have read, Toby Jones’ performance seems like a more accurate depiction. Jones’ version showed more colors of emotions; particularly presenting the playful socialite side of Capote in Infamous, an aspect that seemed muted in Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s take in Bennett Miller’s Capote. Toby Jones’ performance was overlooked after Phillip Seymour Hoffman won the Oscar, it is as if as a social group we have exhausted the amount we can possibly care for a subject in its first interpretation and cannot give the same amount of care or attention to the second.

So as a film critique experiment and also to satisfy my lifelong yen to serve justice for the underdog, I have decided to watch Hitchcock and The Girl back-to-back. I chose Hitchcock first because it chronologically takes place before the events of The Girl. Let’s see what happens.

On with the review of Hitchcock

Hitchcock by Sacha Gervasi

Hitchcock centers on the relationship between director Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville during the making of Psycho, a controversial horror film that became one of the most acclaimed and influential works in the filmmaker’s career.

Anthony Hopkins’ performance is more pantomime than a result of inhabiting a role. There’s a lot of emphasis on Hitchcock’s physicality and his droopy face and it comes off as a very good impression played for comedic effect. It’s possible that it is not Hopkin’s fault as director Sacha Gervasi and writer John J. McLaughlin do not have a particular perspective on how we should view Alfred Hitchcock as a person. The film’s not interested in delving too deeply into who he was but aims for laughs with its comedic self-referential tone and many witty remarks from Hitchcock himself.

Helen Mirren as Alma Reville is a good straight man to Hopkins. The interplay between Hopkins and Helen Mirren is the heart of the film. I wish there was more things for these actors to do, to explore their parts with more insight. It forces me to think that they only casted Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh to sell tickets based on the tease of how they filmed her famous shower scene.

The first third of the film starts off decently plot wise, the central question being “How is Hitchcock going to get Psycho made?” However, once the production of Psycho goes underway, there is no more tension in that storyline. It’s as if there was a checklist of events and the film goes on autopilot and checks them off as we move along for the rest of that storyline. I am sure there was more drama to the production and if there wasn’t, the film should take narrative liberties to dramatize it. For example, we all know the security cars missing the airplane taking off by an inch in Argo did not really happen in real life, but it’s more dramatic depicting it that way than just having the crew sigh relief after passing the three security checks as the film’s climax. No, the film shifts focus onto the relationship between Hitchcock and his wife Alma.

The use of humor gets in the way as well. There is a device where Alfred Hitchcock has imaginary conversations with Ed Gein (played by Michael Wincott), the real-life serial killer that inspired Psycho. It’s a great idea for a device as the manifestation of Ed Gein represents Hitchcock’s drive to complete his controversial vision. In essence, Hitchcock is having a supportive conversation with himself. However, the film chooses to score these conversations with a thriller type score that suggests that the imaginary non-existent Gein is going to stab Hitchcock at any second as if we were suddenly watching a Hitchcock film. This tonally defuses the original goal of the device, all in the place for a self-referential laugh.

Did I learn anything insightful about Alfred Hitchcock? Not too much other than I would really like a supportive wife like Alma. It works as a light dramatic comedy about an aging odd couple.

The checklist nature in which Hitchcock glosses over the events of the making of Psycho ultimately makes for more of a televisual experience as opposed to a cinematic one.

Now on with the review for The Girl

The Girl by Julian Jarrold

The Girl depicts the turbulent relationship between filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and actress Tippi Hedren. Hitchcock becomes infatuated with his leading actress, and ends up subjecting her to a series of traumatic and gruelling experiences over the making of The Birds and Marnie after she rebuffs his advances.

The Girl is as far away tonally as one could go after watching the light and funny Hitchcock. Aesthetically it’s a much more cinematic experience, it’s a much darker film and it has a very firm perspective of how it depicts its characters. In fact, the most interesting thing about The Girl is it pretty much decides that Alfred Hitchcock was a sexual predator, and fully depicts him that way one hundred percent. This is where The Girl may distance audiences.

Sienna Miller gives a great performance as Tippi Hedren. Even as a victim, Tippi Hedren is not a weak helpless inactive character. Miller manages to find a lot of things to play dramatically which makes this dark subject matter very watchable. I was scared for her in her scenes with Jones and even have a feeling of how beauty can be a problem for a woman if you are constantly gazed at all day by your boss. Something I probably would not think of if not for the film. As naive as it sounds, I would love to hear what women have to say about this film.

Toby Jones delivers. This is a more natural, deeper performance but the ultimate result doesn’t feel like the humorous facetious Hitchcock we know from his onscreen persona. It’s as if Jones had to inhabit the role of Alfred Hitchcock deeper to shift his image to suit the film’s thesis. For example, Jones nails Hitchcock’s voice to a tee, but at times he would shift Hitchcock’s voice to a more sinister place, and at times it was like he was part Alfred Hitchcock, part Cockney gangster. He plays him like an old pervert and through his stare we can see the fantasies that Hitchcock is superimposing onto this woman and experience the emotionally violence. Never has a dirty limerick felt so scary.

I am of two minds about The Girl. If only it was a complete work of fiction with imaginary characters, I could tell you that it was a great film about abuse, harassment and power dynamics against women in the workplace. It’s a story worth telling, it’s a more cinematic film than Hitchcock and I am glad I saw this movie, but I cannot simply dismiss somebody as a sexual predator simply from watching a film.

Not to dispel anybody who has been a victim of emotional or physical abuse, but I cannot verify whether the events in this film really happened or not. As a viewer, I can go as far as viewing it as an interesting speculation at best. I simply cannot answer the film’s plea for justice the way it demanded.

That’s the choice everybody will have to make when watching The Girl: do you believe it for fact or does it stop as an interesting speculation?

Verdict: 
It’s hard to access if this was successful because I cannot rewind and experience this in another way, but I do this works as a solution. Mainly because I had to digest both films together in their individual goals and this is as fair an assessment I could have given for both films individually. It was an ironic experience because the two films have completely opposite depictions of Alfred Hitchcock.

Let me know what you think! =)