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Side Effects

20 Mar

Director: Stephen Soderbergh (2013)

SideEffects2013PosterThere is nothing more terrifying than reading the side effects on new medication. Written on the thinnest paper, intricately folded into the tiny box with origamic precision to ensure they can include all the reported side effects. Hair loss, hair gain, decreased sex drive, weight loss, weight gain, depression… It’s better to avoid them at all costs. But in a country where health care comes at a cost, the pharmaceutical industry becomes a dangerous beast when, just like our medication, doctors can also be bought.

Allegedly Soderbergh’s last film, Side Effects delivers a terrifying insight into the American disease of big pharma in the mould of a post-Hitchcockian psychological thriller. But unlike the legally required notes in your medicine, to reveal the plots and surprises of the film would be a sincerely unwanted side effect of this review.

Emily (Rooney Mara) eagerly awaits the return of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) as he is finally released from prison following a four year stint for insider trading. But after a surprise run-in with a wall in her car, Emily is soon diagnosed with depression and agrees to start seeing a psychiatrist, Jonathan Bands (Jude Law). When other drugs fail to work, Jonathan contacts Emily’s old psychiatrist, Victoria (Catherine Zeta Jones) who suggests a new drug, Ablixa that might help Emily regain control of her spiralling life and help her enjoy life with her newly returned husband.

Bringing up often overlooked themes of mental illness and violence alongside notions of guilt and who should hold the blame when pharma goes wrong, Side Effects is an eye opener into the corruption and dangers of a society obsessed with pharmaceutical fixes. Last seen in Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, Channing Tatum functions as a (shirtless) catalyst to jumpstart the film, illuminating the struggles of Emily to feel excitement that her husband is finally returned. And shirtless. Yet she feels nothing. Rooney Mara is a quiet terror as the troubled Emily while Jude Law’s unwinding Jonathon drives the film as the plot twists and strangles around him.

Like a trip you can’t – and don’t want to – escape, Side Effects is an unrelenting thriller double, possibly triple, bluffing its way into the mind and definitions of ‘madness’ and beyond. If this really is Soderbergh’s last film, to continue the drug metaphors, we are truly going out on a high.



10 Mar

Director: Park Chan-wook (2013)

stoker-posterAll families have skeletons; secrets and histories we’d rather keep hidden from prying eyes, even if those prying eyes are our family themselves.

Written by Wentworth Miller (Prison Break) and directed by Korean director, Park Chan-wook, in his first foray into English language film, Stoker is a stunning yet disturbing invitation into the secrets that lurk in family history.

When India’s (Mia Wasikowska) father dies in a car accident, she is left in their desolate yet immaculate home with her emotionally unstable mother (Nicole Kidman). That is until Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to stay. An Uncle Charlie India never knew existed until her father’s funeral. Before long, India begins to have her suspicions about Uncle Charlie, particularly the effect he seems to be having on her mother. But wariness soon gives way to infatuation as India becomes entangled by her uncle’s calming manner and almost omniscient presence in their home.

Stunning to look at, from the opening credits to the flawless costumes and styling to the most beautiful meeting of nature and violence, Stoker is a revelation of cinematography. Symbolic and eerily quiet, Chan-wook presents a film so reaped in artifice and false impressions that, just like India searching for the truth about her uncle, we need to work to figure out who we can trust – if indeed anyone.

What Stoker may lack in the intensity we saw in Old Boy and Chan-wook’s earlier work, it makes up for in mystery and slow burning tension as the veils around the characters slowly fall, to reveal them all at their most twisted and disturbed. It is perhaps this idea that has earned the film a host of comparisons to Hitchcock, where the suspense and psychological thrills are not so much plated up for the viewer, but left hidden in shoeboxes, in trees, behind doors left ajar, for us to find and create.

Stoker finds its strength when we define its title away from the simple Bram Stoker’s Dracula comparisons and look more towards the idea of a stoker, an implement used to fuel the flames of a fire. Mia Wasikowska excels as a young woman between her role as daddy’s girl and her burgeoning sexuality. Matthew Goode serves to meet this unborn sexuality, to stoke it, with his too perfect appearance and the almost otherworldly seductive power he holds over the Stoker women.

Quietly violent and resonating, Stoker is a strikingly affecting film wrapped up as a gothic fairytale and a revelation that has allowed us to see Wentworth Miller emerge as the writer we should all be watching.


15 Oct

Director: Tim Burton (2012)

Tim Burton has certainly made his name from the darkness and his latest release, the much anticipated Frankenweenie sees the godfather of all things gothic return to form with a funny and suitably twisted tale of a young boy and his dog. His dead dog. That he brings back to life.
With a title like Frankenweenie, there’s clearly no hidden surprises, it’s pretty clear what fate will come to ole Sparky; but as you don your 3D glasses (admittedly begrudgingly for me), we once again enter into the Burton world as Young Victor thinks of the only way to bring back his beloved dog after he cruelly meets his premature demise. Playing on the pastiches of vintage horror from the protagonists to Victor’s eerily familiar classmates, Frankenweenie is Burton’s nostalgic homage to the films that have inspired him throughout his career.

Inspired by the wonderfully deranged science teacher Mr Rzykrusi, voiced by Martin Landau, teaching his terrified class on the merits of electricity to bring back the dead, Victor gets creative with the kitchen appliances and creates a fully functioning resurrection machine to bring back his Sparky in the attic. Thankfully, Burton’s New Holland, a picture perfect depiction of dreary suburbia, can be depended upon for frequent bouts of lightening. Perhaps a slightly concerning statistic considering the prevalence of children with kites, but nonetheless ideal for rebellious resurrections of deceased pets. Or pets from packets.

Effortlessly playful, from the character names including Victor’s toothy ‘friend’ Edgar “E” Gore and next door neighbour Elsa van Helsing (Winona Ryder) and her Bride of Frankenstein coiffed poodle to subtle Disney references there for the taking, Frankenweenie is entertainment for kids and grown up film buffs alike. Teaching valuable life lessons that move beyond ‘be careful when playing with the fragile veil of life and death’ or ‘do not let children run amok in pet cemeteries’, Burton has created a heart warming family story for our twisted modern generation.

Reviving of one of Burton’s own early shorts of the same title from 1984, Frankenweenie has clearly been a pet project for many years, bringing together some Burton cast favourites, his battalion of expert stop-motion and puppetry craftsmen and iconic cinematic metafiction. Filled with touching moments particularly between Victor and his parents (Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) and the creepy monster scares we love from Burton, Frankenweenie will jolt even the coldest of hearts with its mischievous nostalgia and old school ways.

A whimsical and riotous animated adventure to the underworld – and back again.

(Originally published on The London Word).