Saturday, March 30, 2013

Great Expectations (2013, London West End)

Well, it was stagey but not actually as stagey as Anna Karenina. So said we after witnessing the taped version of an actual stage play for Great Expectations. This was the culmination of a long tour chronicled here.

It was an odd experience which begins with ten minutes of interviews of the various people involved talking about how great it's going to be, with a twenty minute intermission where many more people are interviewed as to how great it's been so far, and how great the second act's going to be.

And the actual play is, y'know, under two hours so there's zero need for an intermission. I mean, Peter Jackson is a kiwi, but I assume news of the length of his movies has reached England.

Now, about the play: The executive summary is Charles Dickens meets Tim Burton. They reference this a couple of times, with hasty assurances that there is a long Gothic tradition to draw on, but let's not pretend: This is the Weird One's influence, down to closing music that sounds like Danny Elfman could have written it.

The next thing—and this seems to be a thing with plays of late—is that changing sets is hard so we're just not gonna do it. I don't disapprove. It puts a heavy burden on the actors, writer and director but if they're up to it (and they are) it can work.

So it all takes place in Miss Havisham's dining room, decayed wedding cake still on the table.

"What do you mean: M.O.A.?"

This, as noted, is stagey. But, hey, it's a stage play. So, you know: appropriate.

The acting is, naturally, top notch. And the fact that scene transitions are basically done by using lights to shift focus from one area of the stage to another—without a lot of time-costly character entrance and exits, and moving furniture—means that things can go at a breakneck pace without actually feeling rushed.

A few things early on felt a little awkward but I wasn't sure if that was me getting used to it, or the fact that it is a kind of awkward story, or there were just decisions about how to play things that didn't quite work. Everyone's made up like Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland but that, of course, has a different effect when you're actually in the audience versus watching a filmed version with close-ups.

It's good. It's all done as a flashback, with the grown-up Pip observing the proceedings as his younger self moves through them—kind of an endurance trial for an actor, being on while almost never being the focus.

Except for the "Entertainment Tonight" style filler, we all liked it. Though The Flower couldn't resist punning: "I had high hopes for this."

Friday, March 29, 2013

Mama

It's fair to say that Mama, the latest in the "Guillermo del Toro presents" series of horror movies is the saddest horror movie I've seen since the last horror movie in the GdTp series, El Orfanata. It's actually even sadder.

I can't remember a horror movie that had me on the verge of tears throughout most of it. Even The Boy admitted to tearing up at the end.

Because it's amazingly fucking sad.

I'm not sorry for swearing because I want you to be prepared if you go see this film. It's the story of a couple of girls (age 1 and 3) who are discovered by their uncle after being lost in the woods for five years, and who have gone feral. And, this is not a spoiler, they've been raised by a ghost they call "Mama".

This setup for this is basically the movie opener, and the story of how the girls get out into the woods is, in itself, amazingly tragic.

From a genre perspective, this is an interesting tack that isn't much taken, except (apparently) by Spaniards: I often talk about how horror movies can be fun, or not fun, but this is a rare type of horror movie that goes for, and achieves, poignancy.

There are no throwaway characters. The dialogue is not wince-inducing; it's even smart. Even when certain aspects of the film are predictable, they are handled with more sensitivity and intelligence than you get in most horror movies, where you can tell the whole point of character X is for the boogen to have someone to kill.

For the classic case-in-point, at one point our heroes, portrayed by Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (best known as the evil Jamie Lannister, here a straight up good guy) are trying to negotiate the girls away from their unpleasant aunt (played by Jane Moffat, who also does Mama's voice, and is way more pleasant than she appears here), and manage to do so through the conniving of a psychiatrist played by Daniel Kash.

(The acting, I note, is rather good. Down to the little girls, who are beautiful and kind of haunting, but even when kind of creepily feral, just little girls and not demon-children.)

Anyway, the thing is, you know, in horror movie terms that both the Aunt and the Psych Must Die at Mama's hands. The way this is usually done is to have them be cartoonishly evil (and the aunt kinda is, but her motivation is strong and pretty comprehensible). But The Psych in the horror movie is usually a double-whammy of cartooniness, because he's both self-motivated and so smug about his sense of reality, that he never believes any evidence until he's killed by the boogen.

Not what happens here. Kash plays a character who is ambitious and sees fame and fortune in the girls, but he's also honest enough to recognize that something is going on. This does lead to him doing something almost inexplicably dumb, but, hey, it's still a horror movie.

There are a lot of little surprises here and there, but ultimately we have a horror movie that rests on the strength of its characterizations. Sure, there are a few shocks, the atmosphere is great, and the story is satisfying, but this is in the end a movie that wants to use the supernatural as a way to rip your heart out and grind it into the dirt.

I mean, we're talking the Brian's Song of horror movies. It's sad.

We liked it, and we liked it more and more, the more we discussed it. Great script by Andres and Barbara Muschetti, co-written with director Neil Cross. Tasteful CGI, for the most part; necessarily heavy at the end in a way that I suspect won't age that well. Fernando Velasquez, who also did El Orfanata, score hits the spot.

I'm gonna give a special shout out to Chastain and her Joan Jett impersonation. This movie ultimately works because she is a character who goes from not wanting to be a mother, to doing what has to be done, to loving the little girls.

I don't know why, but every time I see her in a movie I think "Oh, you're not so great. Impress me." And every time, she seems to do so. I mean, when was the last time you saw a horror movie and thought, "Wow, that's a subtle, convincing performance of a complex character?"

Yeah. Wild, huh? So, recommended. If you don't my crying your fucking eyes out.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Come Out And Play

There was a meme about a decade ago on the Internet: "How many five-year-olds could you take in a fight?" Rules were set up, calculations made, and a good time was had by all, at least in the Internet sense of "good times".

It's tempting to say that Makinov, the creator of the film Come Out And Play basically visualized that meme into a movie, but that would be incorrect. This is a remake of a well-regarded '70s Spanish horror flick "Who Can Kill A Child?", based on the Spanish novel "El Juego de los Ninos".

Other thoughts: This is The Birds, only with children instead of birds. Or, this is The Screwfly Solution, only with children instead of men. It's The Walking Dead, only instead of poorly developed characters recklessly fleeing zombies, poorly developed characters are fleeing children.

Primarily, what it is, though, is unpleasant.

Horror, as I've noted many times, is hard. By definition, a successful horror movie is going to get pushback. Horror is an uncomfortable feeling, and difficult to sustain in a way that anyone would voluntarily subject themselves to. Horror literature does it by building atmosphere and dread, using suspense and tension, and selectively using the actual horror for brief, well-timed moments of frisson. (And even then, the tradition is steeped in nihilism, which is inherently ugly.)

Horror movies, on the other hand, are more likely to use atmosphere, shock, comedy, campiness, and action. Horror movies need a lot more lightness than literature: Reading is an entirely different experience from seeing and hearing. Just as sex must be dealt with more circumspectly, so must scenes of horror.

Of course, there are a lot of movies that don't do any of these things, and you hunker down and hope they will be expertly executed enough to bear. "OK, so this movie isn't going to be any fun but at least it might be good," you hope.

Which brings us back to Come Out and Play. This is the story of Francis, a youngish father of two, who brings his 7-month pregnant wife out to look at a Caribbean island where he knows no one and struggles with the language (Spanish). For what reason, we're never quite clear.

When they get there, they notice (eventually) that there are only children on the island. Surly children.

OK, so, horror movie: You know what this means. We've got a Children of the Corn thing going or maybe a "Miri" (episode of "Star Trek"). This is the movie of this couple discovering what happened (but never why or how) and then attempting to flee.

Really, the entire tension is based around reluctance to kill children. There are so many difficulties with this, it's hard to enumerate them all. Much like in the zombie movies, where there's always some character who looks at the soulless, lifeless eyes and says "Yeah, that's my loved one, s/he won't bite me." You've gotta sell that stuff hard.

Likewise, if characters start going loopy. Or if a pregnant woman's affinity for children generally is so great, it overwhelms her desire to protect her own unborn child. Or a man with a pregnant wife who seems to casually leave her alone for murky reasons. (You can see "The Walking Dead" parallels I was referring to earlier, I trust.)

Then, of course, even if you manage to sell all this stuff, you have a pregnant woman in peril, and ultimately gonna hafta bust some grade-schooler's heads open. So what's your payoff?

I presume there are people who don't find this sort of thing so inherently objectionable that the standards of them buying it are much lower. On the other hand, The Boy's comment was that he would've started busting toddler head much sooner, and he was mostly just bored.

There's no explanation for how the situation starts, though by description and observation, it seems to be occult in nature. The Boy felt it would've been more interesting to have an overt demonic intelligence shown at work, because that would have at least papered over the fact that the children's behavior isn't consistent unto itself. In other words, certain things that come to pass pretty much strictly for the purpose of keeping the plot from derailing could at least have been justified or explained as part of a larger plan.

The movie credits "Makinov" with writing, directing, producing, cutting, shooting and doing the sound, so I guess it's his baby all the way. It looks nice. The gore is restrained, thankfully. The music (I didn't see any credits for) is '80s era Moog stuff. Did the trick, even if it reminded me somewhat of someone sitting on a keyboard.

We actually went because we thought it would all be in Spanish. Horror-movie-wise, the best way to avoid those sad young males whose sole means of masculinity is to comment loudly on horror flicks, is to see foreign language horror flicks. However, this is mostly in English, with some Spanish (and some of that unevenly subtitled, and some not subtitled at all).

Tough to recommend, unless you're really creepy kids (not your own). Or maybe just if you're a film critic. This is one of those films that Rotten Tomatoes shows a high preference on the critical side (60% critic to 30% audience liking).

Bless Me Ultima

Carl Franklin is one of those guys who's been around forever. His name sounds vaguely familiar, sure, but probably because it's an All-American kind of name. And he's one of those actors where you say "Oh, that guy!" because you saw him on "The Rockford Files" or "The A-Team" or maybe in his last acting roles on "Roseanne". Then you wonder "Whatever happened to him?"

Well, he moved behind the camera and became a director, contributing to "Rome" and most recently "House of Cards", but also doing some noteworthy (if low key) features like One True Thing and now Bless Me, Ultima.

Didn't know what this was going in. The reviews were tepid (RT 71%/81%, audiences liking more than critics) and I actually thought it was a Spanish-language flick so I didn't take The Flower (it was kind of late, too). A shame, perhaps, since I think she would've liked it.

They call it a "coming of age" film, but since the lead character goes from about 7 to 9, that seems a little young to actually, you know, age. But I guess it applies, because it's the story of a boy, Antonio (Luke Ganalon) as he learns about sin, God, the Church, Good and Evil, and some general family turmoil mixed in as well.

The catalyst for these changes and observations is the titular Ultima, a curandera (shaman) who comes to stay with the family. It's not really clear if she's a relation or not. "Ultima" is also apparently a somewhat disrespectful (or perhaps socially dangerous) name, although I don't know why, and she doesn't seem to mind that Antonio calls her that.

It's just after WWII in a small town in New Mexico, and he is the youngest of six with the next oldest being his pre-teen sisters, and the oldest being three brothers who come back from fighting the war. Antonio is about to go into the first grade, but he spends the last weeks of his summer gathering herbs with Ultima.

The action starts when a family sends for Ultima because their son is dying, and nothing seems to be helping. The curandera exists in a kind of gray area—the town is dominated by its Catholic church on one side (and its whorehouse on the other)—and in this WWII-era, she's simultaneously dismissed, feared and respected.

In this case, the son was apparently wandering through the woods and came across three young girls (brujas) practicing witchcraft. Ultima offers to lift the curse, but warns that altering a man's fate can have dire consequences. Of course, the family agrees.

What happens next is interesting: It's a completely non-ironic, non-ambiguous curse removal, complete with sorta voodoo doll totems that saves the sick kid's life.

I mention this because I have never ever seen such a thing in a non-horror film. Not just a non-horror film but what is primarily a realistic film.

I liked it.

This curse removal ends up rebounding back on the three witches, daughters of the town's Bad Guy, Tenorio (Castulo Guerra), who sets out to destroy Ultima (and old time "witch tests" even come up!).

Meanwhile, Antonio does well in school, is respectful in church (but very confused as far as Ultima's status under God), receives communion, and argues with his friends about God, at least in the fashion of grade school boys, which is to say shallowly and blasphemously, but not without insight. There are family troubles, a glimpse into puberty and mortality, and a multitude of examples of human frailty.

The Boy and I really liked it. Good, interesting characters acted well and believably, with a lot going on. I think a lot of the criticism is aimed at a lack of focus, but I consider that misplaced. The story is very much about all the things Antonio experiences that takes him out of the innocence (or perhaps ignorance) of childhood, with the over-arching battle between Tenorio and Ultima providing a backdrop for him to see a wide-range of good, evil, and good-but-flawed.

It was almost simple at points, but there are many layers to it. You could just watch it, or you could interpret it. Nicely done, Mr. Franklin. It's also beautifully shot by Paula Huidobro. I also liked that the score (by Mark Killian) stayed away from the Mexican clichés.

This is an easy one to recommend.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Hava Nagila (The Movie)

The most iconic Jewish song of our lifetimes. But what does it mean? Where did come from? How old is it? Why the heck is it so popular? What's the deal with the dancing?

This is the subject of a charming new documentary by Roberta Grossman (director) and writer/collaborator Sophie Sartain. An endearing narration by Rusty Schwimmer (late of The Sessions) and liberal use of video clips that can be reasonably inferred to be from the approximate times or approximately about the subjects being discussed, or at least a fun pop culture reference to Jews, make the 90 minute flick go by like a breeze.

Besides the archive footage, there are interviews with Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, Regina Spektor and Glen Campbell (all of whom have recorded the song), Leonard Nimoy (who explains the Jewish origin of the Vulcan "Live Long And Prosper" hand sign) and a bunch of experts in various aspects of Jewish tradition.

There's also a bunch of cool old people, including an 86-year-old woman who's very light on her feet as she teaches people how to dance the hora, and an old man recalling the significance of the song in the early days of Israel.

Semi-spoiler: The music is from a religious chant that originated in the Ukraine in the late 19th/18th century, to which lyrics (based on Psalms) were put in the early 20th century, creating a "Happy Birthday"-type situation where descendants of the "songwriter" are eligible for royalties! Of course, there's a dispute over who actually did it.

Before we went in, I had the kids guess how long into the movie before the Holocaust came up. (The Flower guessed closest, with the first reference being 26 minutes in.) But it's a tricky thing: You're dealing with a movie about the joyousness of a song, so how do you get genocide in there without killing the mood?

As it turns out, though, Hava's cultural penetration (especially in the USA) is strongly tied to the Holocaust, or so this movie argues. The key word is "davka": In spite of everything, the Jews can sing this joyous song of celebration.

And it's kind of awesome how the song spreads to other cultures who only have a vague sense of what it means (and that only from intuiting). The movie didn't draw this circle, but given that the music itself originates as a wordless chant, meant to be higher than regular prayers and a way to get closer to God, it seems fitting that an ignorant world would end up using it that way.

It's also kind of awesome are the Hava haters, who generally despise the song for being too accessible (hipsters are everywhere) but also make the claim that it's a "dead end" musically that keeps people from exploring the vast tapestry of Jewish music. But, as the movie points out, to learn about it is to open up a huge area of study.

Overall, it's kind hard not to like this film. Over 50% of the 70-odd reviews on IMDB give this a one: I call shenanigans. The Boy and The Flower were both greatly entertained.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D

There is an iconic and memorable shot in the 1974 splatter-fest Texas Chainsaw Massacre where Teri McMinn approaches the house where Leatherface has just murdered her boyfriend (the movie's first kill). In some ways, the shot summarizes the genre: there's the promise of both butt and gore. It's eye-catching in the actual film (beyond the obvious) because it's a low tracking shot that some real thought and effort must have gone into for such a low-budget flick.

How iconic is it? Well, I saw TCM once in the early/mid-'80s. When the remake came around 20 years later, I knew exactly from that one shot what the trailer was a remake for. Walked in to the theater, saw Jessica Biel's ass and said "Hey, they remade Texas Chainsaw Massacre!"

Seriously, take a look:
'70s era jean cutoffs
2003's interpretation of '70s jeans
These are the best two shots I could find, unfortunately. I would have sworn there was a similar shot of Marilyn Burns (who wore white pants more like Biel's than McMinn's red shorts) too but I may be mis-remembering.

Again, I've only seen the movie once, decades ago.

Why bring it up? Because I'm convinced after seeing Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D that director John Luessenhop remembers this shot as vividly as I do, since about 80% of 3D is shot at butt level.

OK, that's an exaggeration. But if I learned anything from this movie it's that Alexandra Daddario has a nice butt. Also a nice belly. And breasts. They're not completely uncovered at any point but revealed as part of a plot point. (Note to filmmakers: Making revealing the starlet's cleavage necessary to the plot is not the same as providing justification for a character revealing same. Here, she's just suddenly topless and there's no explanation given.)

Primarily, though Ms. Daddario has amazing slate-blue eyes that are enormous and seem to retain copious amounts of non-running black mascara regardless of the travails she suffers.
Family reunions are always trying.
Thank you Maybelline®!
Tania Raymonde, the annoying little girl on "Malcolm In The Middle" who I guess was also in "Lost" is also still hot. And she's playing a saucy little minx, like she did in Blue Like Jazz. I will probably always find this disturbing.

You may have noticed I haven't said anything about the movie. This is not entirely fair, even though this be a gimmicky 3D sequel to the 1974 original film which I'm frankly kind of "meh" about. (It was an impressive achievement with some memorable moments, but like many movies of the era, I found it more unpleasant than thrilling.)

The premise is that after the iconic scene where Leatherface dances his chainsaw dance of rage on the highway as Marilyn Burns' character escapes, the local sheriff shows up to arrest him. (Makes sense, right?) The family decides to give him up, but before they can a horde of rednecks show up to burn them to death in their house.

But...a child survives.

Flash forward 40 years, and Alexandra Daddario is that child. She looks great for a 40-year-old, I think we'd all agree. Actually, she's not 40, she's only 20-something as far as I can tell. And since everyone else in the flashback is still alive, and they only seem to have aged about 20 years (or in some cases not at all), I can only assume the years between 1980 and 2000 never actually occurred in the universe of this sequel.

Some people dispute that this movie is supposed to take place in 2012. I can only assume they didn't read the headstone that indicates Grandma Verna (Marilyn Burns from the original, though not playing the same character!) died in 2012. The movie plays a little fast and loose with the date since our heroes/victims tool around in what looks like it might be a '90s van, and none of them have cell phones or any electronic gadgetry whatever. But later in the film some very high-tech cell phones and computer trackers show up. (And Daddario's half-shirt/jeans-with-shiny-belt outfit would've fit in the '90s.)

I'm sure it was never considered, even for a moment, but the movie would've been way more interesting with a 40-year-old actress. Someone who's been struggling in life because she had no sense of who she was, and because she was messed up from birth. Someone who was looking for familial connections.

But we have our formula, and that involves lots of long, low shots on scantily clad babes. And a pretty slavish recreation of the first part of the original film.

Anyway, Daddario's character discovers her true identity when a lawyer finds her to tell her her Grandma Verna is dead, and she's inherited the family estate. She and her boyfriend, and her girlfriend and her boyfriend end up taking a road trip where the executor tells her to read this letter Verna wrote, which will explain everything.

I was prepared to be bored, and I was pretty much through the first half of the film. A few things rescued this for me, sort of.

First, while it's necessary (as in much horror) for the characters to act stupidly in order to keep the story moving, the stupidity in this movie is pretty plausible. They pick up a hitchhiker, for example, only to later leave him unattended in the newly acquired house. Stupid, but they're kids. Later, they're trying to escape the house (smart!) but try to crash through the gate instead of waiting for it to open. (Stupid, but understandable.)

Second, after the initial murders, the story moves from the house to the town proper, and there's a little more suspense than just outright violence. The story, predictable from the opening scene, at least, you know, progresses to it's dumb end at a serviceable pace.

Third, there are some nice homages to the original. The recreation of the '74 movie is done with affection, with Gunnar Hansen (the original Leatherface) in a new role, the original grandpa playing grandpa again (and now closer to the right age), and Bill Moseley (who was in the intentionally very funny Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) also in a new role.

Fourth, well, yeah, the girls are really cute.

Fifth? There isn't really a fifth. I'm reaching. I think it's more a matter of I thought it was just going to be really awful and halfway through, it seemed to be confirming that, but then there were a few things that were kind of interesting or funny.

The Boy predicted the plot and "twist" on the way to the theater. But he was also the one who wanted to go.

We didn't see it 3D, but the 3D parts are goofy, as always, with a couple of exceptions. A chainsaw thrown at the screen was pretty duck-inducing, even in 2D.

Not really recommended, unless this sort of thing is your bag.

But if a previously unknown grandmother dies and leaves you her estate, make sure you read that letter she wrote first thing.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Untouchables (1987)

I was a Brian De Palma fan before it was cool. No, wait, that can't be right. I'm not that old. I was Brian De Palma fan in the long dry spells between his hits. And also in the twilight of his career. I was a fan right up until Redacted and his anti-American tirades got the spotlight during the second Iraq war.

Sort of a shame, since he could really use some fans about now, I'd guess. (And if you think he's bad off, Joe Dante is in the same category for me, and it's never been cool to like him.)

Is it possible to digress before you've even started on a path?

I should start doing ninja reviews, where I divert your attention and then bam! before you know it, you've gotten my take on things without even knowing it.

Anyway, in a career spanning some forty years, and ranging from films as diverse as Bonfire of the Vanities to Mission: Impossible,  The Untouchables is undoubtedly De Palma's greatest film. (Some people will say his best film is Scarface. Those people are all cocaine addicts.)

The Untouchables is the story of Eliot Ness and his squad of soldiers dedicated to defeating the bootlegging gangsters who owned Chicago from judges down to beat cops.

You have to set your libertarian impulses to sleep, otherwise you get embroiled in the whole "Wait, prohibition is really stupid, and this is a good illustration of why." And for all De Palma's love of moral ambiguity in other contexts, The Untouchables is a pure story of good versus evil, which actually fits in really well with his style of cinematography.

He'd retired the split-screen trick, which is good, I think—I don't think audiences focus well on two things at once. (Though he did bring it back again later for one of his '90s movies, I think. Snake Eyes or something.) One of his other characteristic shots, where he's got a person in the foreground and one far in the background, but both are in sharp focus, is used sparingly.

Mainly, though, he'd internalized a lot of the lessons he'd learned from aping Hitchcock over the past 15 years, and gives us well integrated suspense scenes. The final set piece both hearkens to Hitch, and  the Battleship Potemkin and even The Wild Bunch.

Ennio Morricone's lurid score recalls the TV series' theme at points, with heaping helpings of trumpet-muted wah-wahs for the bad guy, and a good guy theme that would not have been out of place in Star Wars.

Have the actors ever been better? Kevin Costner as the good-hearted Ness. Charles Martin Smith as the nebbishy accountant who develops a love for busting heads. Andy Garcia? Well, he's probably been better, but maybe never prettier. And Sean Connery as the Irish beat cop with a Scottish accent in what is probably his most iconic role outside of Bond. De Niro at his most evil. Patricia Clarkson at her most wholesome—even with her limited screen time, she radiates perfect wife and mother.

Billy Drago in the role he'd end up playing for the rest of his life. Though, in fairness, he was playing that role prior to that point. (I imagine that's how he got the job.)

But when you think about it, De Palma has never had trouble getting good performances from his actors, even in challenging conditions. Style is something he oozes. So why is this a great movie, and not a jumbled mess?

I put the blame squarely on David Mamet. The visuals, the music, the action is all great, but it's all held together with a script that is worthy of the struggle between good and evil. It's not exactly Wizard of Oz as far as permeation into the culture, but can you go a day without hearing someone talk about "they pull a knife, you pull a gun"?

So, while the libertarian in me can't help but notice that the situation is entirely the result of government meddling, the inevitable corruption that occurs when you try to outlaw vices, and a shocking abuse of police power that was ultimately unsuccessful, the moviegoer in me easily chokes the libertarian on popcorn on waterboards him with a 52 ounce cherry cola (unlimited refills!).

Wait, what?

I'm saying it's a good, even great movie. One of The Boy's favorites. This was The Flower's first time seeing it, and she enjoyed it a lot, though it is a guy movie.

Check it out.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Genius On Hold

What's a good progressive to do? You wanna make this compelling documentary about how a brilliant inventor was driven to a life of crime by a monopoly, but it was progressives who created the monopoly in the first place using the same argument they always do: Wise, good-hearted experts can serve the public better than the free market can, so it's okay for the government to destroy business in the name of this noble goal.

Well, if you're Gregory Marquette and the movie is Genius On Hold, you bookend your otherwise compelling documentary by editorializing about a tenuous connection to the current economic crisis in a way that emphasizes evil big corporations and every President from Reagan to W, making sure to omit Obama completely, except when you're having the great Frank Langella narrate pleasing platitudes. (And, I'm not kidding, one of these glowing pix is with Obama and the late, unlamented Hugo Chavez.)

Eh. It's not as irritating as it sounds because, by the end, the inescapable conclusion is that Big Business and Big Government work together to thwart freedom and justice.

In that sense, it's kind of heartening. I don't care if they ever admit they were wrong, as long as they eventually get to the right conclusion.

I've been meaning to review The Untouchables, as we just recently saw it, and as deliriously grand a movie as it is, I couldn't help but noticing that the good guys were operating on behalf of an oppressive government and ultimately get the bad guy through an abuse of government power. I mention this here because this tells another side of the same story in an entirely different milieu.

This is the story of Walter Shaw. But to understand his story, you need to know the story of AT&T and how their monopoly came to be: By the turn of the 20th century, there were bunches of telephone companies all over the country because AT&T sucked.

Not bein' snarky there. The initial monopoly (in the form of patents) granted Bell over the phone system ran out after 17 years, and he hadn't exactly covered the nation in telephone lines. Little companies covering more sparsely populated areas that Bell didn't deem profitable popped up—and were profitable. Bell having money, if nothing else, began to buy up those little services and consolidating.

But, you know, why bother with all that messy buying and selling, and dealing with recalcitrant little guys, and risking anti-trust lawsuits, when you can just get Congress to outlaw everyone else?

I wanted Marquette to draw a parallel with health care at this point, or at least with the damn post office. Too much to ask, of course, but it's maddening to sit there and listen to the same wrong arguments from a hundred years ago being used today.

But this is all prologue to Walter Shaw. Shaw, a man with a 9th grade education, starts working as a lineman with AT&T, running cable and getting paid by the foot. But he has an aptitude for electronics, and AT&T discovers this, educates and employs him in the legendary Bell Labs where he produces amazing gizmos.

Shaw just gets better and better, and ultimately all he wants is credit and a piece of the action. AT&T is willing to give him status and more money, but not crazy patent money, and certainly not credit.

Morons. But, of course, monopolies make companies stupid, which is a lesson I don't think any corporation has ever learned.

When they can't reach an agreement, Shaw goes independent—but wait, he can't! It's against the freakin' law to hook anything up to AT&T's wires that AT&T doesn't allow.

Let that sink in for a while, especially if you're a youngster who thinks that the current company going by the name "AT&T" is any relation to this older one. The force of the US government was used to keep people from attaching devices to wires in their own homes even if those devices had no impact on AT&T's services.

Unable to make a living, Shaw finds customers who have special needs and aren't as sensitive to legalities as your average person. To wit, he invents call forwarding—which seems like an innocuous thing now, but was less so in this context: Making it so that when the cops smashed down the door to your bookmaking ring they found no one there.

That's right: Call forwarding was first used to hide gangsters from cops.

This brings me back to The Untouchables: It rankles that the full force and power of the government is used to stop people from gambling, and to stop them from operating unauthorized phone equipment. At least the latter isn't true any more.

It's pretty outrageous, like getting four years for allegedly making four illegal toll-free calls. Remind you of current copyright cases where you can get fined a bazillion dollars for downloading a song? It should.

Making the story even more fascinating is that Shaw's son (known as "Teal") ends up really pissed both at his dad and society in general, and determines to make the world pay. Also, he's grown up around mobsters.

Government creates crime and destroys lives. Extraordinary tale though this is, it's repeated in smaller ways thousands of times over. The movie gives us a few examples of others who were destroyed AT&T acting irrationally, even to where they'd enlist government agencies to shut down their own customers if they felt those customers posed a threat.

Besides making companies stupid, monopolies make them senile.

The movie's one cogent "big picture" idea is noting that Fascism, which was Italy's take on socialism, is all about tying Big Government to Big Business. While it credits Reagan with the AT&T breakup, it also make sure that every time financial corporatism comes up, Bush and Cheney were on screen. And, of course, it doesn't mention General Motors, General Electric or any other of the current President's favorite cronies.

But I regard it as a quibble, even if it did make me gripe out loud at the time: If we can just get to the point where we agree that every time we sanctify a business or industry with legislation, corruption and loss of freedom will result, and stagnation will settle on that field like a death shroud, I'll be a happy, happy camper.

The Boy and The Flower enjoyed the film, except probably the parts where I was griping, and it is not padded out much (apart from the aforementioned bookends). Definitely interesting and worthwhile.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Emperor

Tommy Lee Jones is MacArthur. Sorta. In the new movie Emperor from Peter Webber (Hannibal Rising, Girl With The Pearl Earring), Jones plays The Supreme Commander on a mission to save Emperor Hirohito from death and the world from the subsequent chaos that would occur should he be put on trial (much less found guilty and killed).

America wants the Emperor dead and Big Mac wants to be President, the chances of which are greatly diminished if the Emperor isn't executed. So, he assigns Brigadier General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox, "Lost") to the task of collecting the evidence needed to indict or exonerate Hirohito. The White House has given them ten days, unfortunately, and naturally the upper levels of Japanese are either suicidal or otherwise non-communicative, to say nothing of having their own agendas.

This, it must be confessed, is a pretty damn worthy basis for a movie.

Questions of truth, justice and the American Way vs. the Japanese Way emerge, with heaping helpings of honor, pride, humility mixed in. Fellers wants to find the Emperor to be a mere figurehead, not responsible for the atrocities Japan committed or the attack on Pearl Harbor. But he has a hard time finding anything at all, and his conscience won't allow him to just dummy something up.

Alongside this plot is Fellers' search for a lost love, Aya (Eriko Hatsune, Apartment 1303, Norwegian Wood) which shows through flashbacks what is really a common strain throughout many reminiscences of WWII: a whole lot of Americans and a whole lot of Japanese among the educated classes really didn't want to go to war.

Aya meets Fellers in college, and when she later vanishes back to Japan, he gets himself assigned to Japan and looks for her, only to find out she's been forbidden to associate with whitey by her father. Her uncle, a general of some renown, is actually somewhat more open to Fellers, perhaps sensing a martial kinship.

A lot of this stuff isn't made clear, like, what exactly transpired to get him back to Japan, or why the general might take a shine to him, and one suspects that we're in highly speculative territory indeed.

But it all kind of works and Fox gives a compelling performance, as does Hatsune and Toshiyuki Nishida as Uncle General Kajima. Another great performance comes from Maseyoshi Haneda, who plays Takahashi, Fellers' assistant and translator. More than anyone, he understands the importance of Fellers' mission, and seems desperate to keep anyone from screwing it up (including Fellers).

Great score by Alex Heffes. A lot of the critical dramatic scenes involve things like filling out paperwork! writing reports! and making up your mind about something! where the music has to carry the drama! My reaction to this was interesting to compare to Lincoln: In that movie, I kept wondering why? The only upshot to Ninja Abe not getting the 13th Amendment passed right away was...that it would be passed slightly later.

It just didn't sell it to me. This movie, on the other hand, did. MacArthur maybe even oversold it a bit, by suggesting that the entire country would riot were the Emperor put on trial—but then again, maybe not. It can't be repeated often enough that the reason we nuked Japan is because they were prepared to strap bombs to their kids and send them rolling under invading tanks, kind of like Islamofascists now, except the kids would be more likely to do it willingly.

And the reason we nuked them twice is because it took two times to convince them.

But the movie itself barely touches that aspect, and doesn't really sell it as such. So I thought maybe I was bringing my own knowledge of history to bear, until The Flower commented on how the Japanese were teaching their children to hate foreigners. This is a scene in the movie, and a persuasive one to her at least.

So, yeah, the movie makes it seem like a Really Big Deal while also expressing the idea that it's important to be truthful and perhaps justice should trump pragmatic considerations no matter how dire.

I got a little teary when Mac met the Emperor, I confess.

So this only leaves us with the problem of Tommy Lee Jones as MacArthur. I like Mr. Jones, going all the way back to The Eyes of Laura Mars. (Remember that oldie? He was very nearly pretty in that, if you can imagine.) And not to damn with faint praise, but he wasn't nearly as bad as I thought he would be.

He got the mannerisms, the poses, the posture—but he still sounded like his ol' Texan self and not really like an army brat born-and-bred to a Virgnian mother and a Massachussets father. His dialogue was also cruder than I think of MacArthur talking.

An iconic star like Jones is always going to have the problem of whether people will buy it if he radically changes his style, regardless of the context. (Kind of like Redford confusingly playing an American in Out Of Africa. Sure the entire movie ceases to make sense at that point but Redford with an accent? Impossible!) Gregory Peck already had a look and sound highly compatible with MacArthur so he didn't have to change much.

Allowing that he could've played it more MacArthur-y, he strikes a good balance. He manages a great mixture of arrogance, empathy, intelligence, bluster and self-regard.

It's getting iffy reviews. Critics seem to generally dislike it, while audiences generally seem to like it, with the former particularly reacting negatively to the romantic sub-plot. For me, I thought that sub-plot wasn't about itself as much as it was a way to show the audience Japan from a Japanese viewpoint.

I wonder, at some level, if the movie doesn't break a lot of narratives about evil America, and maybe that's what's really being reacted against. Americans and Japanese are shown as antagonists, rather than as oppressor and victim. I dunno, maybe.

I liked it a great deal. The Flower and The Boy also really liked it. The audience (packed house) also really seemed positive, from the rumblings in the lobby.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Koch

"You know who New York City really needed as a mayor?"
"Pinochet?"
"Exactly!"

So The Boy and I decreed after watching the documentary on three-term mayor Ed Koch, who basically ruled New York City in the '80s and became a national fixture, immortalized in this Ghostbusters 3 snippet from "The Critic":

The late Koch (who died only a few weeks ago) is predictably lionized, with some commentators blaming New York's '80s housing crisis on Reagan, while attributing the crime rebound—normally attributed to Giuliani's "broken windows" policing policy—to Koch's massive housing project (which ultimately would end his reign with its corruption).

But there's not a ton of stuff like that, and Koch is a likable character, and even a refreshing one with a near classically liberal POV, at least as portrayed here. He fights the unions to keep NYC out of bankruptcy, he shuts down a hospital because it's not profitable, he doesn't really pander to ethnic groups (although one of the commentators insisted he pandered to whites), and he got his start apparently championing a pro-divorce/pro-choice/pro-sodomy platform.

He's also challenged at one point for backing a pro-life candidate and he dismantles that challenge pretty handily by saying he wouldn't ostracize someone for following their conscience. And then by pointing out that the questioner undoubtedly supports same-sex marriage, but wouldn't throw the President (Obama) out because he doesn't.

Stuff like that is nice.

An interesting bit involves a hospital in Harlem being shut down. Koch got one block of black votes enabling him to be mayor by supporting the hospital, but once in office, he felt like it was a waste of nine million precious medical dollars. Ironically, while his predecessors (Abe Beam and Lindsay, I think) had campaigned on shutting the hospital down and then backed off in fear of the backlash from the black community, Koch was the one who shut it down.

And the fascinating thing is that, in this documentary, Koch says he regrets having done it. Not because it was the wrong thing to do for the city, but because of the political fallout. It was such a strange moment I wish the director had spent a little more time and probed a little more on it.

I mean, presumably, if you're shutting down a hospital to save healthcare dollars, you're using those dollars to save lives elsewhere. If you regret that purely for political reasons, then  you must believe (unless you're outright evil) that whatever lives you saved were better exchanged for future political ambitions.

And that may have been the case. Koch comes off as amazingly unassuming on the one hand, and so massively egotistical that he considers himself the owner of New York City. I don't know enough about the situation to know if he ever went full Bloomberg (and really, that would've been impossible in the '80s, even in NYC).

But the documentary glosses over most of the ramifications of his housing and renovation projects. I mean, they sort of say "Yay!" because they like the results—itself kind of interesting, since liberals are known to lament the so-called Disney-fication of Times Square, especially when they're blaming that fascist, Giuliani—but of course they don't really question whether government should actually have that power.

Of course, this is my bias: If things are crappy here and there, or if the rent's too-damn-high, I'd probably first look at what the government is doing to create those situations (hello, high taxes and rent control!). To me, this whole housing project looked like mischief.

The movie has a little problem there, since it wants to praise the project, and shows blocks full of very nice looking, presumably low-income housing. At the same time, it was part and parcel of the scandal that brought him down. Though not mentioned in the film, Koch's affirmative action policies also played a part in the corruption.

Of course, those aren't things you want to tie together, because they're inevitable result of big government schemes.

Koch, and the movie, make the case that he didn't know about any of the corruption, and they make it pretty convincingly. Though if you're parsing closely, what you hear is Koch saying he can't stand the idea that people think he's a crook, and that he's one of the most honest people he knew, neither of which actually precludes him knowing about corruption.

Ultimately, I think he felt he was the best thing for the city, and since he couldn't be in that position without the corrupt Democrat machine working for him, he just didn't look at it. And of course it was the "extremely aggressive" Rudy Giuliani that took him down.

During the racial unrest in the late '80s and early '90s, the grievance-mongers got him back for the hospital by painting him as uncaring about the black community, which hurt his chances.

Also, the homosexuals got him, apparently because he caused AIDS and was gay himself but in the closet. (He has a special rejoinder to those who queried about his sexuality.) Actually, the gay thing is kind of interesting because as he was gaining popularity in his first mayoral race, Andrew Cuomo's campaign started the "he's gay" rumor—and it was effective in dragging him down.

He got himself a beard in the form of the first Jewish Miss America. (Without commenting on Koch's sexuality, she was a beard because they were in no wise actually dating.) This was effective which, I guess, tells you something about the people of late '70s NYC.

Anyway, it's pretty fun, interesting and reasonably short, though padded out at the end with the octogenarian Koch wandering around the 2010 DNC shaking hands and what-not.

The Boy, The Flower and I all enjoyed it.
A shallow ad campaign paves the way for socialism to emerge in a previously economically free country!

Well, that's one way to view No, the story of the Chilean referendum to oust Augusto Pinochet, the only dictator the Left can ever be bothered to criticize.

This is the story of how Pinochet lost his 1988 referendum to retain control of Chile, from the perspective of the ad man who constructed the winning campaign. It's fairly interesting, if not exactly compelling viewing.

The hook is that René (the always charismatic Gael García Bernal) wants to get people to turn out for happiness. A lot of people disappear in Chile, a lot of people have grievances, and of course the communistssocialists are really pretty pissed off since their ruining the country is what allowed Pinochet to come into power and he actually managed unparalleled economic growth for South America.

'course, people just would randomly vanish, and be tortured or killed. So it's not all microwaves and color TVs, as we see René's home with those modern conveniences.

From an atmospheric perspect, this was also interesting: In movies about Communism, there's an oppression–a pall over everything done and said. If in a country like America, everyone is part of the militia (true once, anyway, maybe Switzerland is a better example now), in a Communist country, everyone's a spy.

But in this portrayal of Chilean fascism, it's a weird kind of normal, even happy, but punctuated with outbreaks of governmental insanity.

Another interesting thing is that while René is grudgingly pulled into the NO ad campaign, his boss ends up spearheading the YES side. And while they argue and there are even some threats, they're actually more civil than a lot of left vs. right arguments I see on the 'net.

In fact, the overall arc of the story—General takes control of a ruined country, rehabilitates it economically, allows a vote and wins it, then allows another, which he's looking good to win because (as noted in the movie) things are actually pretty good, but when he loses it, he steps down—kind of undermines the dramatic punch.

I think it's just taken that Pinochet was a monster, therefore the movie didn't feel any need to back that up. There is plenty of creepy police presence on the one hand, but on the other (if you think about it) a lot of the people involved must have been advocating violent overthrow of the government.

René's baby momma is an out-and-out violent Communist, whose revolutionary agitation means René is raising their son while she's shacked up with another guy and on "the usual suspect" list any time there's trouble. I know we're supposed to empathize with her at least a little, because she's routinely beaten by the cops, but again, if you think about it, you're feeling sorry for someone who's a victim of state violence whose preferred form of government results in the worst state violence known to history.

She's also cynical and convinced the whole plebescite, as they call it, is a scam.

There are a few weird 1%er type bits of dialogue between René and his boss. I mean, there are points where the boss is basically encouraging René to join him on the dark side. This felt cartoonish. (Which isn't to say it might not be based in reality. I am struck by what Ace of Spades noted the other day about Lena Dunham, and how many people don't even understand they're supposed to at least pretend to be fair-minded.)

Meanwhile the ad campaign, as envisioned by the hero, is pretty much substance free. I loved the concept of encouraging people to vote by suggesting they could make the country a better place. (You can't fight fear with more fear, as is pointed out.) At the same time, I couldn't help but note that Pinochet's economic successes are the only thing that could make that kind of bubbly '80s optimism seem plausible.

Understanding the dangers of economic freedom may be what ultimately kept the Communist countries away from those Friedman-esque ideas, and why they persisted longer than Pinochet's fascism.

Anyway, it certainly piqued our interest, but mostly in a meta-sense. I wondered what really happened under Pinochet, and what has happened since they replaced him, and if there's any way to find out that isn't poisoned by the old Soviet propaganda machine (that informs so much of our modern dialogue without us even knowing it).

Given The Boy and I are devotees of the banana-republic-sim Tropico, we also had a lot of fun pointing out maneuvers that were done in the movie that help in the game.

"Papal visit! Religious faction bonus!"
"Ad campaign! Increased popularity with dumb people!"
"We're losing by 10%? Arrange election fix!"
"Free market reform! Plus 10 with Capitalists, minus 10 with Communists!"

Heh.

Anyway, stars a bunch of people you haven't heard of and written and directed by similarly unknown-to-you folk. (Since no one from Chile visits my blog, I'm comfortable with that generalization.) Written by Pablo Perriano, who wrote the quirky 2009 drama, The Maid, which this reminds me a bit of.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Jack Reacher

So, Jack Reacher is a thing. Not a thing I'm aware of, but one of those roles, like Anne Rice's Lestat, that people care about and are pretty sure that Tom Cruise can't do. Tom Cruise is kind of the honey badger of actors: He does what he wants.

And for the most part, from what I can tell about this Reacher character, he does pretty well. He doesn't have the physical stature, of course, so if you've read the books, you might have a hard time dealing with that.

But he's got the swag, so if you haven't read the books, there's really only one place (maybe two) where you're likely to be nonplussed. Like when the cops are looking for suspects and ask a motel clerk which guest looks like they could kill a woman with one blow, there's a situation where being 6'5" and well over 200 pounds would help.

Cruise has got the attitude but he is pretty, fine-featured and always kind of decent seeming. (None of which would necessarily rule out you killing someone with one blow, but visual media require visual proof, if that makes sense.)

It's not fatal (at least not for us), and basically, what we have here is a competent little action-mystery flick. A sniper who's not a real good guy is framed for shooting a bunch of people at random, beaten nearly to death by a bunch of cons (while cops look the other way), and as he slips into a coma tells his lawyer (Rosamund Pike) to "Get Jack Reacher".

But you can't get Jack Reacher. He has to get you. (Obviously he does, or we'd have no picture.) Yeah, he's a bad-ass with a very strong sense of ethics that doesn't always comport with The Law.

Despite this, it's actually pretty good. Writer/Director Christopher McQuarrie (writer of Usual Suspects, writer/director of Way of the Gun) keeps things fast-paced (but not frantic) and the story breaks enough of the usual tropes to keep it fresh.

Richard Jenkins is the shifty D.A. Robert Duvall plays a gun range owner. Werner Herzog is the evil mastermind who ate his own fingers.

Solid. Won't blow you away.

Bonus conversation on the way home:

"Tom Cruise is older than I am."
"REALLY!?!?!"

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Like Someone In Love

A prostitute reluctantly goes to a client rather than visiting her grandmother who is sitting in a train station waiting. The client turns out to be a respectable translator of some renown who has made her dinner, but she opts for just undressing and climbing into bed. He lets her sleep. The next day, he drives her to the university, meets her jealous boyfriend who thinks he's her grandfather, and then a couple of other things happen, and then it's been about two hours, and the movie ends.

That's called Like Someone In Love, and it's a Japanese film by the auteur Abbas Kiarostami, who's apparently done better work.

This was one of those films where me and The Boy came out saying "Huh." It's the most static film I've seen since the wonderful Schulze Gets The Blues where the static camera was beautifully used to comic effect.

In this movie, it creates a kind of cinema verité without all the annoying shaky-cam stuff. People do things below the frame, or have conversations off-screen while we're watching the main characters react. And they're given lots of time to react.

They're good actors, and there's some interest to be had sussing out the story. Tadashi Okuno is likable enough to not seem creepy for hiring a hooker his granddaughter's age. Rin Takanashi is beautiful in a sad, vulnerable way, which is good because, well, she's a hooker and her boyfriend doesn't know it but sorta suspects it.

So, good acting. Good characters. Nothing much happens. Ending is weird, not because it wasn't completely predictable (in the sense of being the logical progression of events) but because it's unclear what exactly happened. One of the characters was injured, probably, maybe killed? Dunno. What does any of it meaaaaan?

Nothing, I imagine. It's just a little slice-of-life.

Didn't hate it. Might go see another pic by this guy. Not everyone's cuppa. Can't quite figure out some of the extreme praise. There ya have it.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Hitler's Children

If movies have taught me anything, it's don't be a Nazi. I mean, except for Intolerable CrueltyInglorius Basterds. I'm pretty sure that was about how the Jews were the bad guys in WWII. But Tarantino is an outlier. Most movies with Nazis portray them as bad guys. Well, okay, there's Verhoeven's Black Book, but if you keep throwing exceptions at me, we'll never get to this latest documentary about what a bad things being a Nazi is.

Or in this case, what a bad thing it is to be the child of a Nazi. Or grandchild. Though, at least as far as this movie is concerned, it's not that the children are bad but that they have to deal with some pretty impressive family baggage.

Nazis don't make good parents, it turns out. Apparently, the sort of emotional states that allow one to kill thousands of innocent, defenseless people en masse are not conducive to the kind of nurturing that produces healthy children.

Color me shocked.

This is an interesting documentary but strange. A big part of it—and I'm going to struggle a bit here because I saw this a few weeks ago and am just now getting around to writing about it—involves a guy who's going to see the house where his father grew up. A walled cottage that happened to abut a concentration camp. Maybe even the ovens.

So, yeah, freaky.

At the same time, I had a little difficulty absorbing the guilt. This poor fellow really felt, at some level, responsible for the actions of his grandparents. And, maybe even weirder, he's accompanied by a Jewish journalist who's a "third generation Holocaust survivor".

I've never used an emoticon in a review, but maybe now's the time:

:-/

It's not that I doubt that that the Holocaust echoes down through the generations. And I whole-heartedly endorse efforts to keep awareness of it in the public light. The phrasing makes me a little queasy: You're not a third generation survivor—you're the grandchild of a survivor. If you applied the naming consistently to children of Hoess and Himmler, they'd be third generation genocidal maniacs. And that ain't right.

That's part of what makes this whole thing weird. The Holocaust happened. It's great that a survivor can hug the grandchild of the Nazi who imprisoned him—and this was touching—but that changes none of the facts. They'll always be descendants of Nazis and imprisoned Jews.

The third generation survivor accompanying the grandchild to the camp sort of underscored this. He escorts and narrates and records the journey, but receives no release from the adventure himself. I applaud the honesty, but it does punctuate the whole thing with a question mark.

And, of course, there's a natural tendency to side with the ones going around and talking about it, or writing books against their more reticent siblings. On the one hand, you have those who are still kinda a little Nazi-ish. But on the other, you have to assume that there are those who just want to live their lives not in that shadow.

It held our interest, The Boy and I, but—well, thinking about it, America is a land where the people have no history. I have been at parties where there were relatives of survivors and relatives of Nazis. It's just the sort of thing that happens here.

So, I don't know. Interesting without being insightful, but maybe because there aren't a lot of insights to be had.

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh is back, this time with the tale of an evil pharmaceutical company whose evil drug has evil side-effects—or is it?

Well, actually, it isn't, and what it is way more entertaining as a result.

Now, like Haywire, Contagion and even Magic Mike, this is a modest production. I'm sure the budget predominantly went to Jude Law, no-longer-dragon-tattooed Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Oh, and Magic Mike himself, Channing Tatum.

The story begins with Tatum, former securities trader or some money-type deal, getting out of jail (for some money-type crime) and starting his life anew with his wife (Mara). Mara has anxieties and difficulty sleeping, however, and after many failed attempts, ends up on an Ambien-like drug.

Enter the titular "Side Effects", as Mara behaves in increasingly bizarre ways, with her sleep/wake state being in question.

I don't want to reveal too much about it because I really enjoyed the twists and turns, which start pretty early on. This is more of a psychological thriller than I expected. (I didn't even know going in who the main character was going to be, given that all four leads are on the poster.)

All-in-all, pretty low-key, as Soderbergh is wont to be, without a lot of melodrama. The acting is serviceable. Jude Law is really growing on me, between this and Anna Karenina, and he shines in these low-key roles. He can convey a lot of emotions without needing to go big.

Tatum is fine; I liked Mara better in this than in Dragon Tattoo; and Zeta-Jones I can't really judge rationally. She's sort of imprinted on my brain from that five-year-window from Zorro to Intolerable Cruelty, and that's probably where she'll remain.

You know who looked really good? Polly Draper (best known for "30-something"). She has a small role as Mara's boss. Kind of nice to see someone you haven't seen for 20 years pop up looking good.

Anyway, psychological mind-twisting, with overall a kind of "Law and Order" feel. (Not that it's about cops and lawyers, just the way the story unfolds reminded me of an early L&O.) We liked it, even if we weren't talking about it for days afterward.

Contributors