23 March 2013

Side Effects

Disclaimer: It is rather hard to judge this movie objectively without my healthcare/medical background creeping in to colour some of my opinions.

As Soderbergh's last movie, this is rather disappointing. If nothing else this is a decent thriller: a poor man's "Primal Fear" meets physician's nightmare, but this is nowhere as intriguing/gripping as "Contagion" or as sincere as "Magic Mike". There is a whole mine load of potential story lines that could have been developed and brought out based on the basic premise of the plot, but it seemed like writer Scott Z. Burns and Soderbergh chickened out somewhere in the middle of the second act and dropped the ball. Either that or external factors like studio or backers or ... necessitated the change to a typical, run-of-the-mill thriller plot machinations. The lacked of ambiguity in the characters and the drivers behind them, make them all so one-dimensional and, ultimately, boring. As said, the first act was brilliant, classic, stylish Soderbergh neo-noir but it just got so predictable and sedated. The explosive potential plot threads were just left hanging out dry and ignored. It just dissolved into a standard whodunnit that really, really, had the possibility of informing the public about medical issues that "Contagion" so daftly succeeded in. And that is where it disappointed. It could have gone there, but instead it made a hard left and ended up in Mediocre Avenue. Performances wise, Rooney Mara will never get a second Oscar nomination if this is the standard she is capable of after "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" (anyways, IMHO, that spot should have gone to Tilda Swinton for "We Have to Talk About Kevin" or one of the "Carnage" ladies that year if it was not her breakout role). Throughout the whole film, I was so distracted by her acting, and especially so when you could guess the ending within the first 10 minutes of the show (see ranting further down). I could not decide if she was a brilliant actress that is portraying her character so well, or this is not a role for her. I hope it is the former, but judging from the final scenes, it may well just be the latter.  *spoiler* once you know the ending, you will know what I mean (is she acting a character that knows that she is only acting depressed or is she just a lousy actress who cannot act like a real depressed patient?). *end spoiler* Jude Law was just being Jude Law, with no real emotional depth or palpable desperation, entertaining but not engaging; Catherine Zeta Jones basically just sleepwalked through her scenes; Channing Tatum, Soderbergh's latest muse, is really just ornamental here, but even then this is a few steps back for him from "Magic Mike". And Vinassa Shaw, and no thanks to her very superficially written character, was a pain to watch in her chemistry-less role opposite Jude Law. The only real stand out here is Ann Dowd in her small thankless role.  Seriously, something happened between the first act and second act. The only thing that was really good about it was the second act's portrayal of every doctor's nightmare, but even that was, oh so, brief. As for the ending, it was nagging at me from the very first scene to the first 10 minutes. Come to think of it, perhaps, it was re-written that way?  Even as a whodunnit, it was weak; the "clues" and discrepancies were just so glaring. Where was the suckerpunch? Character development was next to none, and the motivations for action were so weak; a minute he/she is behaving like this, and then next minute the other way. Why? Because it is so. There is no audience empathy at all. I cannot believe this is the same guy that gave us "Contagion" and "The Informant!". Sure, there were some good lines, and a very memorable saying comparing the public's opinion of psychiatry in UK and US, but I am now worried for "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes". There's a very good story lurking behind the first act, but sadly we may never get to see it here, but perhaps one day, another brave storyteller will be able to share it with us. I think I am so disappointed in this movie, partly because I am a doctor and I can see some things here that are just so off-marked, but also mainly because my expectations for Soderbergh's last film was for him to exhibit a sort of gee-bang, grab you by the balls, kind of feeling to it. But instead...Having said all that, my audience seemed to have really enjoyed themselves.

Extra Ranting (filled with SPOILERS):
I feel a need to add this short paragraph...I really think that they ought to have explored further the complicated triangle of pharmaceuticals-physicians-patients and expounded on the theme of guilt and intent. They should have gone on to systematically show how this event ultimately destroyed the life of The Physician, The Patient, and affect (not necessarily bring down) The Corporation. That would have surely resulted in award-worthy material for, and performances by, Jude Law and Rooney Mara. Catherine Zeta Jones could be the physician under the pocket of the pharmaceuticals. All these threads were laid out in the First Act, so why did we end up with this lame, sapphic mess that ultimately is all about love and betrayal *roll eyes*. Sure, you could still add in that twist that The Patient knowingly used the side effects of The Drug to murder her husband, and that would have added an even bigger conundrum to the mix. So what happens then if the Side Effects of the Drug can cause The Patient to commit The Crime, but The Patient was not really on The Drug, and only faking the Side Effects, so then will The Doctor still be in trouble for not recognising that The Patient was faking her symptoms and Side Effects? Is The Doctor responsible for The Crime? Can The Patient pull off the scam to blame The Drug for her Crime? Do we want her to get away with it? Do we want The Doctor to be punished? Or is it always the big, bad Corporation that is at fault? Perhaps The Patient is the anti-hero of the movie? Or is it The Doctor?  So much potential, so wasted! And I suspect they know it.

21 March 2013

Django Unchained

A fun and entertaining, quintessentially Quentin Tarantino movie that is typically more plot rather than character driven. Nonetheless, Tarantino has scripted a highly original screenplay and populated it with a cast of talented actors, it is just a pity that the characters are relatively one-dimensional. Tarantino may have a daft hand and mind to come up with brilliant stories, but like all his other previous features, e.g Kill Bill 1 & 2 and Inglourious Basterds, he fails at providing real depth to his characters and firmly establishing their motivation into the psyche of the audience. In particular, when it comes to romance he is just clumsy and clunky. Thankfully, his movies always have a very absorbing plot, memorable characters, some great lines, a superb soundtrack and panache. The supporting casts are all outstanding with some of the best work by Leonardo diCaprio and Samuel L Jackson. DiCaprio was easily one of the best thing about this movie, as he embraces his inner villain and goes all out in his evil cackle, shifty glinty eyes and OTT boisterousness; Jackson, on the other hand, made an interesting villain out of somebody that appeared so harmless, and he imbued that character with more cunning and fear than anybody else in the show. Christoph Waltz may have won the Best Supporting Actor for this role, but he, like Phillip Seymour Hoffman for "The Master", is really more a co-lead. Nonetheless, his performance was definitely one of the highlight of the show from  the beginning to the end, although his schtick tended to get a bit old towards the final Act. Jamie Foxx as the eponymous lead was a stone-faced character throughout, and it is so hard to really comprehend and understand his motivation: I mean I get it on a cerebral level, but not really emotionally. A throwaway scene in the middle of Act One, is really insufficient for me to care whether he gets to his goal in the end or not.  All these character flaws are where Tarantino is to blame, for he sacrificed characterisation for plot development. These are forgivable in the supporting cast, but even for the lead? As I said, at least what is happening on the screen is interesting enough to keep me entertained. And entertained I was, with the 165 minutes of showtime moving along at a great pace, and surprisingly this was a much less violent experience than his previous entries. Also, not much Singapore censorship detected. The excellent choices of music that Tarantino always have in his movies are also a pleasure to the total enjoyment of this revenge flick. He always had a good ear for the pop psyche. Directing wise was nothing special. There were a lot of wide-angled scenes and some creative shots, but all are part of his trademark and nothing new has been added to his repertoire that we have not seen since "Pulp Fiction" days. Stay till the end of credits!

Note: There are some serious themes and issues that are brought out by the movie which can be viewed both ways. I do not know which was the way Tarantino intended it to be, but he has given us an entertaining movie, and the lessons that we can learn from it - a Satire of Black slavery and White supremacy or a Cautionary Tale on White guilt, or just plain old Fight for the One your Love and Freedom is Equal, Equality is Free - is really up to us an intelligent audience to go figure out ourselves. Or maybe it is just simply Entertainment!

14 March 2013

Warm Bodies

I love the book by Isaac Marion and I love the concept behind this apocalyptic, zombified Romeo and Juliet fairy tale. Nicholas Hoult definitely very competently carried off the lead. His sardonic, deadpanned wit and British charisma brought this Jonathan Levine adapted/scripted, voice-over heavy first act alive. That coupled with the many clever lines, physical comedy gold, his spot on facial expressions and self-depreciating reaction shots made the first act a hilarious joy to watch with many laughters and chuckles throughout. The second act slowed down a bit but at least the two leads had some sort of chemistry and it was nice to see this atypical love story develop, although at times Teresa Palmer appeared deader than Hoult. However, this is more likely due to how less fleshed out (hah!) her character is compared to zombie R. The third act unfortunately lost momentum and became somewhat "normal"...oh, the irony! It just felt like any other typical horror/action thriller. It kind of lost that charm that made the first two acts so unique and interesting. Also, Levine laid on too heavy-handedly the imageries and religious metaphors but the nod to the Shakespearean source was cute. One good, and smart, thing Levine had done was to pepper the first two act with songs from A-list musicians that brought out the non-verbalised emotions of Hoult. But, again, this disappeared in the third act which really aggravated the tonal shift of the whole story. Thankfully, Hoult is a wickedly reliable and engaging presence throughout all three acts to anchor the audience down.

7 March 2013

Stoker

Park Chan-Wook's first American movie is his usual superbly stylish, masterfully suspenseful and gorgeously inventively shot. More in common with "Sympathy for Mr Vengeance" and "Thirst" than his most famous "Old Boy". Wentworth Miller's script deserved being shortlisted on the 2010 Black List for being interesting, and although nothing groundbreaking about the thin plot, Miller managed to create two (and a half) wondrously complex characters. The story started off a bit slow but really gets going when it focuses only on the three leads. And the two main juicy roles were played marvellously well by Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman. It is a crime that the insanely brilliant Wasikowska is so overlooked and underrated, whereas Jennifer Lawrence (who although is talented too, but pales to the range of Wasikowska...come on! Even Meryl Streep has publicly praised her) is an Oscar winner. Wasikowska's portrayal of the lead character is an ever evolving curiosity and an enigma; at times fragile and delicate, and at times strong and tough. It's such a marvel to watch her. Kidman too held her own in a largely supporting role. She gave a complexity to a mother that could have simply been one-dimensional just through simple body language, facial expressions and tone. Kudos too to Matthew Goode who was undeniably creepy and played off excellently against the two ladies. In the end, it was ultimately Park's brilliant direction that brought this psychological thriller to an all new playing field. Odd angles, non-chronological story telling, quick cuts and edits, off-kilter lighting and shadow play all makes this a visual fest. Clint Mansell's score was also effective in creating the mood and tension throughout the movie.

Oz: The Great and Powerful [IMAX] [3D]

A fun and moderately entertaining family-fare that unfortunately is neither great, nor as powerful as the 1939 Judy Garland classic. One of the greatest problem with it is not that Garland's tale is a tough act to follow, but for this generation, Gregory Maguire's wickedly brilliant and smart satire "Wicked" (and to a lesser extent, its sequels) as well as the inanely dumb-downed Broadway fare "Wicked" are already so well ingrained into the consciousness of many of the target audience Disney is aiming at. This result in a very strong discordance between the audience and what is happening on screen. But more importantly, the writers themselves, Mitchell Kapner and Pulitzer prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire,  are also conflicted in their characterisation of the cast and the world they created which had both shadows of Baum's and Maguire's works intermingling with some originality. Come on, have some guts to do something wholly original! Sam Raimi is a visionary director and by filming the movie in 3D, the audience is brought into a wonderfully marvelous landscape. And dumped there. After a brilliant opening credits, a very strong prologue, and an exciting entry into the land of Oz, we are left with a couple of boring set pieces. That being said, 3D was used rather effectively here, but, this is where some controversy may arise, if Raimi had adopted "The Hobbit"'s HFR the scanning shots, and the large scale attack shots, would have been really breathtaking! Especially when viewed on IMAX. The plot had a good first act, a mediocre second act that tried too hard to be too many things and squeezed in too many winks-winks to the original, and lastly a third act that although predictable was fun to watch. James Franco and Rachel Weisz turned in the best performances of the main cast. Franco is a talented actor who when given the right vehicle can absolutely shine (see "127 Hours"), and here his comic timings are impecable, as are his reaction shots and facial expressions. He sure knows how to ham it up! But yet, he injects his wizard with a certain debonair, rouge sensitivity, that is touching. Of the three witches, Weisz embraces her role with the most camp and glee and is such a scene stealer! She understands her character and the undeniably campiness of her role in this production, and with that she just deliciously dials it up. Michelle Williams, on the other hand, seemed to be clearly influenced by the ditzy, bimbotic, Glinda nee Galinda from the Broadway musical, but yet, Williams being such a talented actress that she is, cannot seem to fully embrace that legally blond aspect and portrayed Glinda rather conflictingly, and consequently annoyingly. Just because you are ditzy does not mean you cannot be brave and courageous (see "Legally Blond"). Do not rein the camp in when the role ask for it. Williams also cannot really act opposite CGI, and that is something which Franco was brilliant in. Lastly, Mila Kunis seemed to be having a blast as Theodora, however her character was written too broadly and one-dimensional for us to care much. Her arc just seemed so shoehorned. Even that coda was a let down. She could be capable of so much more (see "Black Swan"). The score is typical of Danny Elfman. A mix of whimsical, fantastical epic adventure with a pinch of chorus and darkness. Even his Munchkin song sounds like his Oompa-Loompa songs. 3D would be fun, but IMAX is not necessary.

Little Women

This was a good and entertaining film that was far from perfect. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, this film was anchored by great pe...