Talking Movies

March 7, 2013

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh reunites with Channing Tatum for a more serious film than Magic Mike, as Rooney Mara takes an  experimental drug for depression and unravels…

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Emily (Mara) is depressed. Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is coming to  the end of his 5 year sentence for insider trading, and she’s very nervous about  him coming home to a small apartment in Manhattan that is a substantial step  down in the world from the privileged Connecticut life they once led. After she  deliberately drives her car into a wall Martin insists that she seek therapy  from English psychiatrist Dr Banks (Jude Law). But little seems to help until an  office co-worker suggests she take a new experimental drug. Banks reluctantly  prescribes it but soon Emily’s behaviour becomes wildly erratic, leading to a  tragic accident. As her previous psychiatrist Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones)  shifts all blame for Emily’s actions onto Banks, he finds himself trapped in a  Kafkaesuqe legal nightmare alongside Emily as the justice system looks for  scapegoats.

Soderbergh’s regular screenwriter Scott Z  Burns (Contagion, The Informant!) grounds this nightmarish drama  in well researched reality. Some of the most chilling scenes involve not Emily’s  hallucinations but the insidious cosy relationship between doctors and Big  Pharma, and the subsequent shafting of Banks by all his colleagues once Emily’s  case makes the tabloids lest it endanger their own lucrative practices. The  obvious comparison for a story like this you’d think is Douglas Sirk’s Bigger than Life but in fact it’s impossible  to guess where Burns’ script will go next, one moment it feels like The Crucible as the legal net catches the  blameless Dr Banks, and the next it feels closer to a Henri Georges Clouzot  suspense thriller. If you’re not conscious then you can’t have intent – but can  you be programmed by others? This question makes Banks increasingly  paranoid.

Law, following an unexpectedly revelatory  turn in Anna Karenina, is very  sympathetic as the good man caught inside an inexorably tightening legal vice  and being abandoned by his friends and his shrill wife (Vinessa Shaw) as he  tries to prove his innocence. Tatum oddly seems to be wearing Magic Mike outfits at times, and is involved  in dodgy deals in the South again, but he makes Martin a very caring  white-collar criminal. Zeta-Jones fares less well, looking positively sepulchral  in a cold role, while Thomas Newman, composing well outside his comfort zone, is  equally unimpressive. But this film belongs to the sensational Rooney Mara. She  is utterly compelling thru all plot twists and medicated character changes, and  remains an utter chameleon: she can resemble physically and persona-wise Tom  Hiddleston or Sam Rockwell depending on what the scene needs from her.

Side Effects tackles serious matters  of depression, medication culture, and legal chicanery, and does so with  compelling tension; yes, there are quibbles, but this is Soderbergh near his  best.

3.5/5

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October 26, 2011

Top 10 Scary Movies

Hallowe’en is almost upon us! This weekend Contagion, Demons Never Die, Paranormal Activity 3, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and others will all contend for the horror audience at the multiplexes, while the Screen’s Monster Mash and especially the IFI’s Horrorthon with special guest (and cult hero) Michael Biehn (Aliens, Planet Terror) will cater for the hardcore ghouls. But if you’re staying in for TV or DVD scares instead here’re quality shockers to get you thru the horrid holiday.

(10) Psycho
Hitchcock’s 1960 low budget classic influenced all the other films on this list as it dealt a tremendous hammer blow to restrictions on cinematic violence. Hitchcock’s direction is almost parodically showy as the first act of the film is essentially an enormous shaggy-dog story, setting up a number of prolonged blackly comic sequences. Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates is a terrific resonant villain, especially in the chilling final scene scored by Bernard Hermann with full-on Schoenbergian atonal serialism, while the shower scene with Janet Leigh being slashed to Hermann’s bravura stabbing violins orchestration remains an iconic ‘pure cinema’ scare.

(9) The Host
You may not have heard of this one before but this recent Korean effort is already well on its way to classic status. A hilariously dysfunctional Korean family try to save their abducted youngest member from a mutated monster created by American polluters. Brilliant special effects create scares aplenty while the script is both scathing of American power politics and sublimely absurdist. This pre-dates Rodriguez’s Planet Terror in collecting misfit characters with useless skills, like a hesitant Olympic archer and a Molotov cocktail flinging former student radical, and paying off those set-ups in hilarious and unexpected ways.

(8) Halloween
John Carpenter was probably gazumped by Black Christmas to creating the slasher flick but he certainly codified the conventions of the genre with this 1978 movie. I’ve long thought Carpenter a deeply over-rated director but this film, powered by his deceptively simple yet still creepy music, features numerous sequences of nerve-rending suspense as Jamie Lee Curtis’s baby-sitter is stalked by the homicidal madman Mike Myers in his William Shatner mask. Treasure Donald Pleasance as the psychiatrist Loomis as he dead pans his reply to Curtis’ question “Was that the boogieman?” – “Yes, as a matter of fact it was”.

(7) Night of the Living Dead
George Romero usually gets far too much credit for what is tangential social satire in his Dead films, but there’s no doubt that he invented the modern zombie genre with this piece. By not cutting away when the undead started munching human flesh, and concentrating the action in a claustrophobic setting where the mismatched survivors turn on each other under the constant strain of both repelling the zombies and dealing with the ticking time-bomb of their infected, he gave us the still resonant archetypal zombie set-up. The ending is as chilling as in 1968.

(6) The Exorcist
This 1973 shocker, scored by Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and directed by William Friedkin at the short-lived height of his powers, remains one of the highest grossing movies ever made. Stephen King thought its secret was that it struck a nerve with parents concerned that they had somehow lost their children to the dark side of the 1960s, while simultaneously attracting those self-same kids eager for transgressive thrills. It’s equally likely that such frighteningly realised demonic possession just freaks people out, especially when Max Von Sydow’s stalwart priest realises he’s once again facing the originating villain, Lucifer.

(5) The Evil Dead
The Evil Dead is not a comedy-horror classic like its acclaimed sequel Evil Dead 2, but an extremely gruelling gore-fest that bookends the extreme horror tendencies of the 1970s. Director Sam Raimi made his name directing his school friend and subsequent cult legend Bruce Campbell as plucky college student Ash, fighting off evil spirits inadvertently summoned by his friends by reading an arcane tome at a remote cabin in a forest where even the trees turn out to be evil, damn evil, and prone to doing things that are still controversial. Prepare to lose your lunch.

(4) 28 Days Later
Alex Garland’s first original screenplay was blatantly a zombie reworking of The Day of the Triffids, but there are worse templates than John Wyndham’s particular variety of realistic sci-fi. The post-apocalyptic concerns of that classic became horror gold through Danny Boyle’s customarily frenetic direction of the terrifyingly energetic Infected pursuing Cillian Murphy thru an eerily deserted London. The obligatory survivors turning on each other motif is enlivened by the quality of rhetoric given to Christopher Eccleston’s barking mad soldier, while the climactic eye gouging is perhaps the most horrific act ever committed by any screen hero.

(3) Don’t Look Now
1973 classic Don’t Look Now is on the surface an art-house study, rendered in editor turned director Nicolas Roeg’s typically disjunctive style, of a couple consumed with grief over the death of their daughter trying to forget their loss and begin again by travelling to Venice. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland though begin seeing a red coated little girl tailing them at a distance thru the streets, and become convinced that it may be their dead daughter, leading to an ending so genuinely nightmarish that it will freak you out even if you’ve seen it before.

(2) Alien
Alien is a great horror film which skilfully masquerades as sci-fi, including the score from Jerry Goldsmith at his most dissonant. Ridley Scott firmly establishes the characters before bumping them off in his Gothic space-ship full of dark shadows and dripping roofs. Stephen King has noted that the absence of almost any action for the first hour leaves the audience extremely nervy for when events finally occur. The alien attacks are superbly orchestrated and you’d need nerves of steel not to do a sitting high jump at least twice in the final 20 minutes. Don’t watch while eating…

(1) Scream
Neve Campbell confidently carries this 1996 classic directed by rejuvenated horror maestro Wes Craven from Kevin Williamson’s razor sharp script. Scream is a blackly hilarious self-aware dissection of the clichés of slasher movies which is also simultaneously a genuinely brilliant slasher flick filled with gory attacks and jump out of your seat moments. Williamson’s delicious dialogue is brought to memorable life by an ensemble cast on truly top form, including star-making turns from Jamie Kennedy, David Arquette, Rose McGowan and Skeet Ulrich. Enjoy, oh, and please do remember, “Movies don’t create psychos, they just make psychos more creative…”

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