Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects

I’m usually a nut for anything that Steven Soderbergh has made, but Side Effects was a big ol’ dud. I think it had something to do with expectations, really; I was sold on a smart, scary psychological thriller that explored the unnerving fallout behaviour of trial drugs and shady products snuck into consumerism by Big Pharma. What I got turned out to be a lurid, trashy exercise in deception and Basic Instinct shenanigans, the kind of back end to a film you’d find Eric Roberts or Mark Harmon starring in on HBO back in the day. Not that that’s a bad thing per se, it was just definitely not what I expected from a filmmaker as thoughtful as Soderbergh, but I guess this was his playful side taking over the wheel in the third act. Rooney Mara plays a young woman whose husband (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison, an event which seems to coincide with her recent depression and suicidal behaviour. Her psychiatrist (Jude Law) prescribes her an experimental new drug, likely not yet even approved by the FDA, and things go from bad to worse when she kills hubby in a freaky sleepwalking episode. The drug is shelved, Law is disgraced, the trial stops right there. End of story, right? I wish. The good doctor just has an inkling that something else is going on, something involving both Mara and another shady practitioner played by Catherine Zeta Jones. If I had some idea going in that this was inevitably going to ditch the ideas it claimed to be making a film about and get cheap and sleazy I might have been more receptive, but as is the plot gets so steamy and ridiculous I couldn’t believe I was watching the same film that I started out with. There’s a few twists too many, a lack of believable character action and and a kinky subplot that had me laughing, and not in the good way either. Hard to say much more without spoiling it, but it’s one outlandish turn of events, like a car on the way to a college conference that suddenly veers off an exit to the strip club without warning. I expected more from everyone involved.

-Nate Hill

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Peter Weir’s Fearless

A plane falls out of the sky and crashes in a cornfield. Some of the passengers survive. Others do not. No one involved is ever the same after. Such is the premise of Peter Weir’s Fearless, a complicated, challenging, unconventional and altogether brilliant piece that goes a lot deeper than most Hollywood produced films are allowed to. Jeff Bridges is Max Klein, a man who emerges serenely from the wreck having saved multiple lives and undergone a personal change that can’t be made clear in a scene or two, but rather takes the film it’s whole runtime to explore. While the entire plane is in full panic, Max reaches a sort of tranquility in the face of death, and instead of freaking out he very lucidly gets up and joins a young boy who’s alone on the flight and comforts him. When they land and he survives, his relationship to those around him is affected including his wife (Isabella Rossellini), young son, a trauma counsellor (John Turturro hired by the airline) and others. Most fascinating is the time spent with Carla (Rosie Perez) a fellow crash survivor whose newborn baby wasn’t so lucky, leaving her in a pit of grief. They share something together that no one, audience included, can fully understand because they weren’t there. The beauty of it is that Bridges and Perez can’t really know either, but the magic of both their performances is that they make you believe they’re in this extraordinary situation for real. Bridges never plays it with a messianic or mystical aura like some would, he’s always straight up and kindly which works wonders for this character. Perez is a revelation, soulful and heartbroken but never cloying or panhandling for our tears, she earns them fair and square. I’m not one too get too heated about Oscar snubs but it’s a crime she got beat out by Marisa Tomei that year for fluff like My Cousin Vinny. Peter Weir is a thoughtful director whose films are always high concept stories, but are also always character driven to provide that balance. He’s interested not in spectacle or sensationalism here but the difficult questions that others might gloss over or be too afraid to think about. There’s two scenes revolving around the crash, one of the aftermath and an extended one of the incident itself playing out that reach a level that sticks with you long after the credits roll. Not an easy film to classify or describe in a review, but the rare Hollywood picture that tackles concepts well above what we’re used to seeing. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Wolfgang Petersen’s Shattered

Wolfgang Petersen is known for directing some of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters over the years including Air Force One, The Neverending Story, The Perfect Storm and Troy. One thing he hasn’t done much of is writing, other than the melodramatic, Hitchockian 1991 thriller Shattered, which is kind of a mess. Whether it’s the source novel by Richard Neely that’s dodgy or Petersen’s screenplay that dropped the ball, this film doesn’t quite clearly delineate it’s plot points, many of which are so far beyond plausible it’s hard to really get a grip on the story or keep a straight face. Tom Berenger plays a powerful businessman who accidentally launches his car off a highway outcrop into a spectacular swan dive that leaves his face looking like a dirt bike track and his memory more absent than of Jason Bourne’s. After some facial reconstruction he’s back on his feet and in the arms of his wife (Greta Scacchi), but something just doesn’t quite seem right. The memories she tells him of before the accident don’t seem real to him, he starts gathering clues relating to some kind of infidelity or cover up and his intuition just tells him he’s being thrown for a loop. This is where the film’s narrative sort of imitates that car and drives right over the edge of comprehension; The serpentine twists and turns employed are sort of fun but have absolutely no place in the real world, let alone even a hard boiled thriller like this. Bob Hoskins is fun as a snarky veterinarian who moonlights as a PI, trying to help Berenger fit the pieces together. Corbin Bernsen listlessly plays yet another smarmy role as his ex business partner, I sometimes wonder if they’ve ever given that guy a role worth his salt or if his career is cursed with playing the annoyingly extroverted debonair who has zero depth. Joanne Whalley Kilmer shows up as some psychic who throws around vague threats and acts like she knows something but isn’t even sure herself what it is, which is the feeling the script gives you. By the time the final revelations make themselves known and we see what really happened after the accident it’s kind of fun but also just riddled with inconsistencies and eye roll moments. It isn’t a bad film though, and has a few moments. There’s great cinematography of Oregon and San Francisco as well as a foggy shipwreck that holds a few secrets and gives off spooky ambience. The score by Alan Silvestri is steamy in places, rousing in others and gets the job done. It’s just the story that sort of treats us like we’re idiots, and as if we not only haven’t seen this story done before, but seen it done better.

-Nate Hill

Dreamworks’s How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

The How To Train Your Dragon series has been quite a ride, filled with quality storytelling, humour and heart, breathtaking animation and gorgeous music. It caps off the trilogy with The Hidden World, a rollicking third chapter and conclusion to this legend that sees Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his beloved companion Toothless searching for a new home to migrate to, a kingdom beyond the end of the world where dragons originally came from and a place he heard in tales from his father (Gerard Butler in brief flashbacks). Out to stop them is dragon hunting guru Grimmel, played by a sassy F. Murray Abraham who has just about as much fun with his voiceover role as he could without actually physically being there. Grimmel wants to eradicate all Night Furys from the world, and it’s a race against time, the elements and the reliable stupidity of Hiccup’s endearing childhood buddies to seek out this new home. Hiccup is a fantastic hero because he started out as anything but that, a sensitive, bullied youngster who grew into the strong leader he is today but is still full of self doubt and has never lost his softer side, people like him always make the best leaders. Cate Blanchett is around again as his mom, but sort of takes a spectator’s seat to her son and his rapscallions, including wife to be Astrid (America Ferrera). The real magic here is the relationship between Toothless and a newfound love, a beautiful white female Night Fury who flirts, plays heard to get and frolics with him all across the oceans and skies in a display of animation that’s hard to believe, especially when they reach the fabled Hidden World that looks like something out of Avatar. These films share a wonderful message of love towards the animal kingdom, teaching that if you show trust, admiration and kindness to these creatures, the lives of both species can be enriched. I love the symbiosis between humans and dragons in this series, the variety and personality of each different breed and the pure imagination employed in bringing such designs to life. Highly recommended.

-Nate Hill

River’s Edge

The events depicted in River’s Edge are strange, disturbing, morbid, compelling, darkly humorous and may at first seem farcical or something removed from reality. However, the film is set in any one of the thousands of small, poorer towns this continent has to offer, and the youth portrayed here are probably not that far from truths existing out there, especially when you consider the unsettling fact that this is based on a true story, and not even that loosely either. One day a maladjusted high school teen named Samson (Daniel Roebuck) strangles his girlfriend for no particular reason than she was ‘talking shit.’ He leaves her body on the banks of the river and proceeds to brag to classmates back in town of the deed, seemingly in no hurry to keep it a secret. When he brings his friends back to show them the body, reactions range from stoned amusement to vague unrest, but none of the appropriate horror or shock. Deranged speed freak Layne (Crispin Glover) simply pokes the corpse with a stick and decides that all of them should inexplicably keep it a secret and protect Samson. Only Keanu Reeves’s Matt seems to show a flicker of conscience, providing dissent in the ranks while dealing with a psychotic younger brother (Near Dark’s Joshua Miller). To make matters more complicated and a lot weirder, local oddball drug dealer Feck (Dennis Hopper, right off of Blue Velvet and still half crazy) gets involved too, a piece of work who carries around a sex doll he calls Ellie and apparently once killed a girl himself. Ione Skye and Roxana Zal are great as others in their group who make a half hearted attempt to be the voice of reason but can’t quite bring themselves to defy Layne’s logic. “He had his reasons,” Glover snarls in a performance so over the top and cartoonish that it almost defies description. He’s a terminally weird dude who has a habit of elongating his vowels and twitching like a marmot in heat until he almost becomes something inhuman and reaches a plane of acting all he is own. Roebuck’s Samson is a fat, unpleasant and scary individual whose aloof nature spirals into a very dark place that mirrors events for their whole group, his arc is not a pretty thing to see. Hopper goes certifiably nuts here, a Nam vet and ex biker who has clearly lost his mind but the actor lets the perfect amount of emotional truth into his performance right where it counts, it’s another great work in his canon. This is a difficult and distressing film, but it finds the pitch black humour in its premise too. All of the teens we see here are hooked on booze and drugs right out of the gate, including the twelve year old kid. “Where do my children go at night?” laments Reeves’s mother. The answer might come from looking in the mirror, or that’s too harsh a prognosis, then simply around them at the quality of life in such a forgotten place. Samson may indeed be a budding psychopath, but at the time his reasons for killing his girl seemed as if there was no better, or rather more interesting thing to do, and in fact after he did it his first order of business was to stroll into the local convenience for a beer as if he just got off work. Idle hands are indeed the devil’s work, spurred on by circumstance and setting. These kids might not have turned out so bad in another life, but the one they were dealt has made quick work of them, and it’s most discomforting and somehow mesmerizing to see it play out. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Michael Bay’s Transformers

Because the Transformers franchise has become an unwieldy cloud of toxic waste over the years, most seem to have forgotten how enjoyable the first one was. Michael Bay gets an awful rap for these, and by all means he deserves any shade thrown his way for some of the sequels, but I’m still convinced they only got made to cash in on the massive Asian market, I’ve heard that stuff like this is huge over there. This first film is a little saner and a lot more focused though, with a sort of 90’s Amblin infused vibe crossed with big budget CGI disaster mayhem of our current era, which is par for the course in a film directed by Michael Bay, as are lens flares, a grossly backlit slow motion kissing scene, explosions, fetishistic attention to the details of military protocol, montages of various factions of Americana playing out and um…cameos from loud sassy African American actors. Based on the Hasbro toy of the same name as well as probably an animated show that came before it, Bay ramps up the scale, special effects, human characters and exposition to somewhat plausibly set the Autobots and Decepticons loose in our world, engaged in noisy warfare over the All Spark, a cube of untold power that looks not so distantly related to the Tesseract. Caught in the middle is Shia Lebeouf as Sam Witwicky, a nervous teen whose family history hides something related to the Tranformers mythology, naturally sending him and the obligatory super hot love interest (Megan Fox) on a wild goose chase of stuff blowing up. There’s also various military factions caught up in the squabble including intrepid soldiers Josh Dumahel, Amaury Nolasco and Tyrese Gibson, research scientists Rachael Taylor and Anthony Anderson, Jon Voight as the grave Secretary of defense, John Turturro in pure comic relief form as a hapless federal agent and uh… Bernie Mac too, as the world’s saltiest used car salesman. The Shia Lebeouf angle has a cool 90’s sort of Joe Dante vibe, right down to the presence of consummate 90’s dad Kevin Dunn, naturally playing Sam’s father. While it goes a little off the rails in a final battle that pretty much levels an entire city to the ground and numbs any sense of realism to a dull roar, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the film, especially in the special effects used to bring these mechanical goliaths to life. Bumblebee is always a fan favourite, Optimus Prime looks fantastic and Hugo Weaving brings the vicious Megatron to life nicely. Steve Jablonsky almost outdoes his score for Bay’s The Island here, giving a magisterial composition that’s large and loud enough to accompany the Transformers on their journey and fills the film with noise, as the does the Oscar nominated sound design. Like I said, the sequels have become an impossible wall of deafening, uncalled for noise in the years since and it’s a shame because this one gets tainted in people’s memory when it’s still a good time.

-Nate Hill

Tod Williams’s The Door In The Floor

We don’t get enough widely released films that show how blunt, frank and confusing life can be. Every day is another hilarious tragedy wrapped in unpredictable instances of comedy, enigmatic human behaviour that can’t possibly stick to script and complexities that defy explanation. Tod Williams’s The Door In The Floor is a criminally underrated masterpiece that sort of defies description in the sense that it’s about nothing other than the lives of several people over the course of one New England summer, and what that entails. Is there sadness? You could say that. Is there comedy? Briefly, yes. It’s tough cinema, a film that deals in truths, but they are hard truths, half truths and hidden truths, ambassadors of the film’s slogan on the poster: ‘The most dangerous secrets are the ones we’re afraid to tell ourselves.’ Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger give the best work of their careers as Ted and Marion Cole, a couple haunted by the worst kind of tragedy, both unable to move on in their own way. Ted is a passive aggressive, alcoholic manipulator, Marion is an emotionally shut off shell. These are two people who in another film would absolutely have not been sympathetic characters. Not here. Ted hires sixteen year old college kid Eddie (Jon Foster) as his assistant for the summer, mainly because he lost his driver’s license. Truthfully, he does this on purpose for reasons I won’t impart here, but soon the boy and Marion are having a torrid affair with sex scenes the film doesn’t gloss over, glance away or back down from. The eerie thing is watching how the passage of time has traumatized two people not only to the point where they have become their worst selves, but also are completely unable to recover or continue on with their lives properly anymore. What’s worse, they have a four year old daughter (Elle Fanning, brilliant in an early role) who is swept up in this storm of malcontent, bitterness and broken lives. It’s not easy to watch but it never gets overly sentimental or cheats you by drip feeding emotional work that it itself hasn’t worked for or earned, there’s a naturalistic way these events play out that had me full well believing this was real, and investing everything I had into these characters. Bridges is fucking devastating here in what has to be his finest and most overlooked performance. Ted is a children’s writer (“I’m an entertainer of children, and I like to draw”) who injects pain into his work, a petty egotist whose light for life is slowly dimming. Basinger too brings us her best, she’s uncomfortably opaque yet somehow sweet and soulful, Marion is a seemingly unforgivable character that we come to feel for despite her actions, like a fallen angel. Foster is a find, it’s interesting because his brother Ben, now something of a star, was originally casted but purposefully relinquished the role to his brother as he thought him better suited. Intuitive move because he nails the roiling hormones and confused pining of adolescence to a T while still somehow appearing astute beyond his years. The supporting cast is fleshed out by great work from Mimi Rogers, Bijou Phillips, Louis Arcella and an adorable cameo from Donna Murphy, but really it’s the Bridges and Basinger show. The New England setting is a beautiful misty coastline dotted with vast country estates and windy bluffs, a picturesque yet oddly mournful locale for this tale to play out, inhabited by Marcelo Zarvos’s score that captures the grief and suffering without obviously highlighting it. David Lynch once noted in his autobiography that when approaching a character in writing, directing or performance, it’s important to remember that a person is not all one thing, there’s a multitude of emotions, feelings and impulses at play simultaneously and this results in confusing, contradictory, often self degrading and destructive behaviour that we aren’t meant to understand, but is there for us to see all the same. Williams and his actors keep that squarely in mind here and work to create human beings that feel like people in the real world, imperfections and all. I would tell you to bring a box of tissues but this isn’t the type of drama that elicits tears in an obvious way, but rather slowly, steadily and without a predictable blueprint, but bring that box anyway. Can’t recommend this highly enough.

-Nate Hill

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