Side Effects


Is this what depression looks like?

Is this what depression looks like?

(2013) Psychological Thriller (Open Road) Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, David Costabile, Mamie Gummer, Vinessa Shaw, Michael Nathanson, Sheila Tapia, Ann Dowd, Debbie Friedlander, Polly Draper, Marin Ireland, Katie Lowes, Elizabeth Rodriguez. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

As a society we’re drug-happy. Our physicians and psychiatrists prescribe willy-nilly and Big Pharma encourages them to. Modern American medicine has largely become a matter of knowing what pill to prescribe. That’s not to deny there haven’t been serious advances in pharmaceuticals – but the question has to be asked if we rely on them overly much.

You would think Emily Taylor (Mara) would be happy. Her husband Martin (Tatum) is getting out of prison after doing four years for insider trading. Sure, their lives which had been all about privilege and pampering had gone to a more hand-to-mouth lifestyle but at least they’re together. Emily though suffers from depression and after a failed suicide attempt is sent to Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law), an expatriate Brit plying his psychiatric trade on American shores.

Various prescriptions of anti-depressants prove to be ineffective until Jonathan runs into Emily’s former shrink Dr. Victoria Siebert (Zeta-Jones) at a conference. They discuss her condition and Victoria recommends Ablixa, a fairly new drug, as an alternative (she’s even got a promotional pen to give him). Dr. Banks agrees to give it a try.

At first it’s everything advertised; Emily feels a lot better, her sex drive has returned and things are looking rosy. There are a few blips on the radar – she’s sleepwalking which is a common side effect of Ablixa but that’s not worth stopping the treatment. That’s when a tragedy occurs that changes everything, turning Emily’s life upside down and calling into question Dr. Banks’ abilities as a psychiatrist and threatening to destroy his life as well.

Soderbergh excels in these sorts of psychological thrillers and while this isn’t his best, it’s still a solid effort. He has a strong cast (particularly among the lead four) and casts Law perfectly into a role he specializes in. Law is equally adept at playing heroes and villains, largely because he is a bit twitchy to begin with but is also likable. That serves him well here as he is somewhat morally ambiguous although clearly he’s also having his strings pulled.

Mara has only had three leading roles thus far but she’s been excellent in all of them and here she plays a completely different character than her last big part – seemingly mousy, frightened of the world and everything in it, somewhat high maintenance. She’s a bit of an enigma and the movie relies on her being so. Plenty of actresses can be enigmatic but Mara makes her engaging enough that you want to see her get better, want to protect her and take care of her. That’s exactly what the part calls for.

Longtime readers know I’m not especially a fan of Tatum’s acting but in all honesty he does pretty darn well here. He’s certainly morally ambiguous – all of the characters are, a Soderbergh trademark – but he’s also much more warm and likable than I’ve ever seen him. I might just have to revise my opinion about the man.

Zeta-Jones has of late done some fine character acting. She’s still as beautiful as ever but her range has always been much greater than she’s been given credit for and she gets to stretch it a bit here. I’ve always liked her as an actress and she’s given me no reason to think differently now.

While well-written and even brilliant in places, writer Scott Z. Burns falters in the middle third. However the beginning and the last 25 minutes or so are taut and imaginative. You may see some of the solution coming but it’s unlikely you’ll see the whole picture unless you’re pretty damn clever and observant. This is an effective thriller that is sharp, brainy and sexy – everything you want in the genre. That’s not as common as you’d expect.

REASONS TO GO: Skillfully written thriller. Law and Mara deliver fine performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Missed opportunity to skewer Big Pharma. Middle third muddles about a bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sex, a bit of nudity, a surfeit of foul language and some sudden and graphic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Soderbergh has said that this will be his final feature film as a director (he’s currently putting the finishing touches on a premium cable mini-series) although he hasn’t ruled out coming back to the profession in the future.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100; the film has been getting good reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Firm

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Warm Bodies

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Mama


So put another dime in the jukebox baby.

So put another dime in the jukebox baby.

(2013) Supernatural Horror (Universal) Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Jane Moffat, Morgan McGarry, David Fox, Dominic Cuzzocrea, Christopher Marren, Ray Kahnert, Hannah Cheesman, Julia Chantrey. Directed by Andres Muschietti

The bond between a mother and her child is something that simply can’t be broken. It is stronger than diamonds and carries its own gravitational pull that makes a black hole look like a refrigerator magnet. That bond is there for life – and some say, beyond.

This story starts with murder, of a man who loses it and kills his estranged wife and ex-partner and kidnaps his two children. He takes them, not quite intentionally, to a dilapidated cabin in the remote woods of Virginia called oddly enough Helvetia (with Mad Men-era retro furniture) where he intends to shoot them, and then himself. However fate – in the guise of a malevolent presence – intervenes.

Five years later, the two girls are still missing and their Uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau) is still looking for them although his funds are running low – he’s been utilizing the inheritance from his successful brother. Lucas apparently “draws things” although it’s never really established whether he draws paintings or cartoons or whatnot. Anyway his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain), a rocker chick who plays bass in a punk-edged indie rock band, is a little put off by her boyfriend’s obsession especially since she can’t get pregnant herself.

However quite accidentally Burnsie (Fox), the tracker that Lucas has hired for the task, stumbles on the cabin and finds the girls – Victoria (Charpentier), now eight and her sister Lilly (Nelisse) who is six. The two girls are nearly feral although Victoria seems to be recovering her ability to speak. Lilly, in particular, is nearly mute, moving in an eerie spider-like motion.

It’s nothing short of a miracle that two such young children could survive in an isolated cabin on their own for so long but nobody seems to be questioning that. In fact, their psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfus (Kash) thinks that in a stable home environment that the girls might achieve some normalcy. While Lucas’ Aunt Jean (Moffat) is anxious to get custody, Lucas is actually much closer to the girls and with some help from Dr. Dreyfus gets the judge (Kahnert) to agree once the University arranges for a nice suburban home for Lucas and Annabel to move into.

But things aren’t all My Little Pony in suburban Virginia. The girls are both extremely traumatized and look at Lucas and particularly Annabel with some wariness. They refer to an invisible entity they call Mama who looks after her – and apparently she’s dropped by the ‘burbs to keep an eye on her girls. And after Lucas is removed from the picture, it is up to Annabel – who neither wants the job nor thinks herself able to do it – to take care of two very difficult children.

But a funny thing happens on the way to the horror film. Annabel begins to bond with the two girls (in particular with Victoria) and this Mama doesn’t like at all, not in the slightest. Dr. Dreyfus isn’t much of a help – he has his own agenda which isn’t necessarily in the best interests of the girls. And Mama isn’t recognizing any agenda but her own which isn’t good news for Annabel or  the girls.

This is based on a short previously directed by Muschietti and was produced by fan favorite and all-around good guy Guillermo del Toro. Spanish horror tends to be really atmospheric and Muschietti has a flair for it, making the cabin look anachronistic and genuinely creepy. Everything from the movement of the actors which isn’t quite natural to the suburban setting which is deceptively ordinary contributes to the overall vibe that things aren’t right a’tall.

Enjoy Chastain in this role folks, because you won’t see her in this kind of movie ever again – or at least it’s very unlikely you will. Right now if I had to name the best actress working in Hollywood right now, today, this moment, it would be Jessica Chastain. She has that chameleon-like quality that Meryl Streep possesses that allows her to take on virtually any kind of role and not just make it hers but make it unique as well. Here she’s channeling her inner Joan Jett and gives Annabel a gamine like quality that is endearing with the immature feel of a teenage boy who hasn’t quite grown up yet. Annabel grows up a great deal during the course of the movie and Chastain makes those changes organic. You don’t often go to see a horror movie for the acting performances but this is one of those exceptions where you should.

Coster-Waldau, so excellent as Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones on HBO is solid here, reminding me a little bit of Viggo Mortensen. He plays the dual role of Luke and his doomed brother and wisely lets Chastain take center stage. He’s a terrific actor in his own right and has all sorts of leading man potential. In addition, the two young juvenile actresses do extremely well – Charpentier as the emotional center reaching for the mundane and Nelisse as Lilly who has one foot in the spirit world wherein Mama dwells.

Mama’s backstory is nothing to write home about and when she is revealed she isn’t all that impressive but when she moves through the floor or ceiling it’s chillingly effective. Mama needs to elicit a certain amount of sympathy from the audience but in this case she doesn’t really inspire enough which is a hard feat I know but it would have made the movie exponentially more effective. As it is given Chastain’s performance this is a horror movie mainstream audiences should go see.

REASONS TO GO: Creepy in all the right places. Jessica Chastain is the best actress in Hollywood right now period. Nice ghostly effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Story a little bit convoluted. Final look of Mama is a bit of a letdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some pretty scary images some of which are pretty disturbing, some thematic issues and a few nasty scares.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally scheduled for a Halloween 2012 release, the movie got bumped up to January which proved to be a smart move as it recouped its entire production and marketing cost in its opening weekend, debuting at number one at the box office.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. Although the reviews are somewhat mixed, there are more positive than negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Woman in Black

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Sorcerer and the White Snake

Defendor


Defendor

Clark Johnson can’t believe he gets stuck with the low-rent superheroes.

(2009) Action Comedy (Darius) Woody Harrelson, Kat Dennings, Elias Koteas, Sandra Oh, Michael Kelly, Clark Johnson, Lisa Ray, A.C. Peterson, Kristen Booth, Charlotte Sullivan, Tony Nappo, Ron White, David Gardner, Bryan Renfro, Max Dreeson. Directed by Peter Stebbings

 

When you think about it, in order to be a superhero vigilante sort you have to have at least a screw loose or two. It would be much worse if you didn’t have any super powers to speak of.

That’s Arthur Poppington (Harrelson) to a “T.” By day he’s a mild-mannered construction worker – actually, he’s the guy who holds the “Slow” and “Stop” signs on road crews. He was abandoned by his mother as a boy and is certain that she was murdered by a super villain named Captain Industry. He has dedicated his life to tracking down this nefarious criminal, thus far without success. Usually it involves Arthur dressing up as the superhero Defendor – yes, spelling is not one of Arthur’s strong suits. He puts on some army surplus blacks (with a “D” on his chest in silver duct tape), a video camera on his helmet and eye-black serving as a kind of mask. More often than not he gets his butt kicked.

One night he interrupts a pimp beating up on a crack-addled hooker and stops it. It turns out that the pimp is actually a cop, Sgt. Dooney (Koteas). The girl, Katerina (Dennings) is in no shape to go anywhere so Defendor/Arthur violates one of his own rules and takes her to his Batcave…err, lair. She finds him to be a bit unbalanced but sweet – and maybe her ticket out of this horrible nightmare that is her life. She intimates that she knows who and where Captain Industry is and things escalate in a very bad way.

There have been a number of delusional superheroes without powers movies of late, mostly on the indie scene but best known is Kick-Ass from a couple of years ago (a sequel is supposedly on the way). This one doesn’t really add anything to the conversation about delusional superheroes but neither does it disgrace itself either.

The reason for that is mostly Harrelson, who has been really turning in some memorable performances of late. Defendor doesn’t have powers per se and he’s not much of a fighter, but he uses some clever weapons – like jars full of angry wasps, and marbles to trip up his opponents. Harrelson captures the hangdog Arthur nicely, making his delusions organic and believable. We never doubt Arthur for a moment.

The framing device of Arthur’s psychiatric sessions with a sympathetic doctor (Oh) goes a long way in helping with that. In fact, the supporting cast is solid if unspectacular, with Johnson as a sympathetic police captain, Kelly as a sympathetic co-worker and Koteas as the dirty cop (Koteas has proven quite adept at portraying dirtbags). Denning is also notable in a role that could be entirely cliché but is given plenty of personality by Denning, who to my mind is one of the most exciting young actresses around. She has all the earmarks of having a career filled with meaty roles and Oscar-caliber performances.

Stebbings is a Canadian actor who is making his feature-length directing debut here and his inexperience shows. There are times when the editing is a bit abrupt and quite frankly much of the material is rather hit or miss. There was some potential here, but I think a more experienced hand at the wheel might have cajoled it out. I wanted to like this movie more than I did but the flaws of pacing, writing and lighting are just too glaring to ignore.

WHY RENT THIS: Harrelson continues with his string of good performances. Denning delivers.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Really doesn’t add anything to the “Superhero without powers” films that have been coming out. Hit or miss.
FAMILY VALUES: This one’s got it all; violence, drug use, bad language and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ellen Page was at one point rumored to play the Kat Dennings role; she wound up in the similarly-themed Super.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $44,462 on a $3.5M production budget; a box office flop.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 4/10
TOMORROW: The Insider

Gothika


Gothika

Penelope Cruz and Halle Berry conduct a pretty faces who aren't just pretty faces face-off

(2003) Supernatural Thriller (Warner Brothers) Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., Charles Dutton, Penelope Cruz, John Carroll Lynch, Bernard Hill, Dorian Harewood, Bronwen Mantel, Kathleen Mackey, Matthew G. Taylor, Michel Perron, Andrea Sheldon, Amy Sloan, Anana Rydvald. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz

 

After an Oscar-winning tour-de-force in Monster’s Ball and a well-received role as Jinx in the James Bond  (Pierce Brosnan-era) flick Die Another Day, what Halle Berry needed to do was to show that she can open a film, in Hollywood parlance, to move up into upper echelon of stardom.

On the surface, Gothika would seem to be a strange choice for Berry’s declaration of superstardom. After all, it comes from Dark Castle Productions, which up to that point had for the most part been serving up remakes of William Castle-produced B-movie horror classics, only with better budgets and modern eye-popping effects (see House on Haunted Hill, Th13teen Ghosts). This one is a bit different. For one thing, it is a completely original story, one of the first Dark Castle produced.

The plot isn’t a simple one. At first glance, Dr. Miranda Grey (Berry) seems to have a pretty nice life. A respected psychologist at a gothic woman’s prison in New England, she’s married to the warden (Dutton), himself a psychologist of some repute. There are hiccups, of course. One of her patients, Chloe (Cruz) seems to be imagining phantom rapes that she claims were perpetrated by the devil. When Miranda seeks a more rational explanation, Chloe exclaims “You can’t trust someone who thinks you’re crazy.” But the ever-rational Dr. Grey, who believes in logic above all, finds that Chloe’s rantings are the cries of a woman attempting to displace her guilt at having murdered her abusive husband.

That dark and stormy night Dr. Grey is forced to take a detour home when her normal route is washed out by the rain. She has to pass over a lonely bridge, when she nearly runs into a girl (Mantel) standing in the middle of the road, causing her car to skid into a ditch. When Dr. Grey goes to see if the girl is all right, she finds the girl is badly gashed. That’s the last thing she remembers.

Three days later, Dr. Grey wakes up — to discover she is now a patient in the penitentiary at which she formerly worked. When she demands to see her husband, her former co-worker, Dr. Graham (Downey), informs her that her husband isn’t in and wouldn’t be in again for the foreseeable future – and that Dr. Grey herself had punched his ticket for the choir invisible.

When Dr. Grey loses it, she is sedated. Over the next few days, she tries to piece together what happened, through therapy sessions, interviews with the sheriff (Lynch) who also happened to be her late husband’s best friend, and her own fragmented memory. When Dr. Grey sees the girl in the prison shower that she nearly ran into that fateful night, she becomes upset which I suppose is perfectly justifiable.

After some digging, Dr. Grey discovers that the girl is actually the daughter of a hospital administrator (Hill) and there is a bit of a problem; the girl had committed suicide years before. Dr. Grey, being the logical, stable person she is, doesn’t believe in ghosts. The problem is that ghosts apparently believe in Dr. Grey, and they begin to have several violent encounters with her, escalating with each incident, and always prefaced by flickering electric lights which go largely unnoticed in a prison that has had electrical problems for years.

It becomes obvious that there is more to the murder of her husband than Dr. Grey was led to believe, and that something or someone is willing to kill the good psychologist to silence her about what she knows. The only way to survive and find the truth about her husband’s murder is to escape from the maximum security prison, and only then will Dr. Grey confront what really happened to her husband – and find out that her life will change forever.

Director Mathieu Kassovitz sets up a wonderfully spooky atmosphere, which is absolutely essential for a ghost story. Unfortunately, Sebastian Guttierez’s script has a few leaps in logic which — when you consider his main character is supposed to be defined by her devotion to logic — derails the movie at times. For example, during the escape from the prison, Dr. Grey is allowed to leave by a friendly guard who even gives her his car to use. Why would he trust her when the evidence points to her as an axe-murderer?

There is another, even more glaring hole, but I can’t discuss it here without giving away a vital plot point. The characters are a bit stock but Berry does an excellent job. She has to play a strong, self-confident woman whose whole world is shattered. Dr. Grey is not the perfect hero; she loses it from time to time, which makes her more realistic. She has to re-evaluate her view of the world as it becomes more and more evident that there is a supernatural element in the events transpiring. She shows self-pity from time to time, but her inner strength carries her through.

With an Oscar victory in hand and an important role in the X-Men franchise, Berry is a formidable presence in Hollywood. In Gothika she more than proves that she is capable of carrying a movie herself. Kassovitz, who has directed Crimson Rivers (one of the best horror movies of recent years) and Amalie, a delightfully charming fantasy, is a first-rate talent. Although the flickering electricity can sometimes be a bit heavy-handed, he prefers to build the horror through atmosphere, suspense and misdirection. There are some horrific moments of gore, but the gore isn’t so over-the-top that it defines for the movie. With this impressive cast (Downey and Cruz are wonderful), he does a fine job in his first English-language movie. I had hoped we would see great things from him at the time this came out although to date that hasn’t happened yet.

Gothika is one of those movies you don’t want to see in a dark room without someone to clutch. There are a few genuine shocks, but nothing that will put a pacemaker into overdrive. It derives its success from excellent acting, fine directing and a compelling story advanced by characters who rarely stoop to cliche. If 2003 is remembered as the year visceral horror made a comeback (and it well should be), Gothika should have been noted as one of the films that fueled the trend. Unfortunately it didn’t get the respect it deserved.

WHY RENT THIS: Stellar performances and well-received scares. Kassovitz creates an admirably spooky atmosphere, perfect for a good ghost story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many lapses in logic and plot holes. Some of the characters are a bit stock. The ending is a bit weak.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of violence, a bit of nudity and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Berry broke her arm during production when Downey grabbed her arm harder than he meant to and snapped it.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a Limp Biskit video covering the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes,” a song that figures prominantly in the movie. The Special Edition DVD also includes an episode of “Punk’D” featuring Hallie Berry being led to believe she had been locked out of the premiere of the movie, as well as an MTV documentary on the making of the Limp Biskit video. There is also a featurette on the inmates in the prison, giving their backstories. It doesn’t really add much to the movie but it’s a nice touch.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $141.6M on a $40M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW:One for the Money