“Side Effects” (2013) starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, & Catherine Zeta-Jones

One pill can change your life. -A tagline for the movie

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) has just been reunited w/ her loving husband- Martin (Channing Tatum- at 33 y.o.)- who served a 4 yr. jail sentence for insider trading. However, the 28 y.o. graphic designer becomes V depressed (even attempting suicide by crashing her car into a wall). At the ER, Emily convinces the consulting psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), to release her instead of hospitalizing her for observation (as is commonly done). Emily explains that therapy was helpful for her in the past, and becomes his regular patient. Dr. Banks gives her some meds, BUT none of them are working for Emily. After conferring w/ her former psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Dr. Banks prescribes an experimental new medication- Ablixa.

Director Steven Soderbergh considered casting Lindsay Lohan for the role of Emily and he auditioned her 3x; however, producers felt that her ongoing legal issues would disrupt the production process. Blake Lively was originally cast as Emily, BUT the production company dropped out after learning of her casting; they returned after Mara took over the role. Law (then 41 y.o.) admitted that he felt insecure playing the lead role, as it was his 1st role as a husband/ father (as in real life), the 1st time using his real accent, w/ no hair/makeup changes. Soderbergh said that one of his biggest influences making the movie was the work of Adrian Lyne, esp. Fatal Attraction (1987).

If the character should be nude in the scene and it makes sense and I trust the person making the film, then I don’t see a problem with it. I certainly don’t want to be involved in anything that is gratuitous, but I don’t think the human body is something to be ashamed of. Every other person on the planet has the same parts as I do. So seeing them shouldn’t be a huge shock to most people. -Rooney Mara

The less you know about this movie, the more you will enjoy it. I learned about it from the most recent ep of Fatal Attractions podcast. As several critics have noted, Soderbergh (who also operates the camera) doesn’t stick to just one genre in his work. Here, the viewer thinks it will one type of movie, but then it takes a different turn after about 40 mins. The screenplay (by Scott Z. Burns) is V well-written. I wasn’t a fan of the lighting that was chosen for some scenes; the yellow/green tint doesn’t look appealing. The production design was well done; most of the interiors are apts and offices of modern-day NYC. The acting was strong, aside from some of the line readings/mannerisms of Zeta-Jones; she and Tatum have appeared in other of this director’s films. The supporting cast (incl. veterans of the NYC theater) add to the story. If you enjoy thrillers and don’t mind characters who operate in the “gray area,” check this out.

[1] There are surprises (one of them hinted at in the opening scene) and then further and further twists.

[2] The screenplay is incredibly well-written, creating characters that amaze us, disappoint us and deceive us all the while being a part of an interesting and complex story. […]

It’s more of an edge-of-your-mind thriller rather than an edge-of-your- seat thriller. Never really scared, always questioning the moral and psychological behaviour of these characters.

[3] For half of the movie, it is a persuasive indictment of the pharmaceutical industry and its crass behavior toward its patients; for the other half, it is a three- cornered mystery/thriller, with double crosses and framings galore.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

“Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013) starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, & Justin Timberlake

Follow a week in the life of a young folk singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. Guitar in tow, huddled against the unforgiving NYC winter, he is struggling to make it as a musician against seemingly insurmountable obstacles — some of them of his own making. -Synopsis

The cat was a nightmare. The trainer warned us and she was right. She said, uh, “Dogs like to please you. The cat only likes to please itself.” A cat basically is impossible to train. We have a lot of footage of cats doing things we don’t want them to do, if anyone’s interested; I don’t know if there’s a market for that. -Ethan Coen

This Coen brothers movie (streaming free on Amazon) is a vehicle for Oscar Isaac, who acts (and sings) in the title role. I saw it for the 1st time last week and liked it a LOT! The Coens are experts at casting, creating different worlds, and setting mood/tone in their movies. Llewyn (handsome/talented) is NOT a V likeable character, which could be hurting his music career and his friendships. He can’t even afford a Winter coat- awww. Recently, he has been sleeping on friends’ couches or in his sister’s humble home. Mitch (Ethan Phillips) and Lillian (Robin Bartlett) Gorfein are an older/academic couple who work at Columbia; their cat follows Llewyn out of their spacious UWS apt. Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan w/ long dark hair) are a married couple/musical duo. A promising young singer in the Army, Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), has taken their couch. Also, Jean is V angry/hostile (she has a reason to be so).

Llewyn Davis: If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.

Joel and Ethan Coen named a character Al Cody (AKA Arthur Milgrom) as an homage to a veteran Minnesota documentary filmmaker- Al Milgrom. The Coens are from the Twin Cities area and looked up to Milgrom, who also founded a film fest. Llewyn (desperate for a break/money) gets a chance to record a song (Please Mr. Kennedy) w/ Jim and Al Cody (Adam Driver in a cowboy hat w/ short hair). Driver’s role is small, BUT it’s memorable. He sings (the funny parts of the song), says “meow” (just like a cat), and gives Llewyn his couch for the night. At an interview for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Isaac said that he watched tapes of actors (when the Coens asked his advice) and liked Driver’s audition. “He owes me his career,” Isaac joked; Driver laughed and replied w/ “thanks.” The actors are friends and attended Julliard, though Isaac graduated before Driver.

Jean: Everything you touch turns to shit, you’re like King Midas’ idiot brother.

Through Al’s friend, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund- w/ James Dean vibes), Llewyn gets a ride to Chicago. In the backseat is an older jazz musician, Roland Turner (John Goodman), who is annoyingly chatty, offensive, yet also funny. Goodman is the type of character actor who always adds to whatever movie he does. Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) is based on Albert Grossman, who ran the Gate of Horn club in Chicago; he also managed Bob Dylan, Peter Paul & Mary, and Janis Joplin). Llewyn sings for Grossman (re: Henry VIII and Jane Seymour); it’s a mournful song. The singing voice of Mike (Llewyn’s former music partner) is Marcus Mumford of the band Mumford & Sons. He’s now married to Mulligan; I wonder IF they met while working on this movie. Mulligan and Hedlund co-starred in Mudbound (2017) where they BOTH do a great job; check that out soon.

I think they have a common theme, even though they work in completely different ways. Specificity of story – so clear with what it is they’re after – and different opinions about how to get there. They’re kind of unanimous in that way. Just to see the Coens at the state they are in with their careers, and how they still have this relentless pursuit to to tell the best version possible, and do all their homework – it’s incredible to have been able to witness. -Driver, on working w/ the Coens

[1] The performances are certainly a major plus with Isaac doing a marvelous job in the lead role. I really loved the way he brought this character to life and especially the various moods that he goes through. This includes some very dark moments in the film but also some pretty funny ones where his mouth gets him into trouble.

[2] The ten or so minutes in that car are some of the very best. Goodman taunts and pokes (literally, using a cane) Llewyn, calling him Elwyn. He is absolutely brutal and yet hilarious. 

[3] For lead actor Oscar Isaac, this movie should be a deal-breaker in landing crucial parts in films for many years to come. Of course, he owes so much here not only to his talent, but also to his writer-director duo. The Coens are the absolute masters right now in character creation (and casting the perfect people for those characters)…

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

“What If” (2013) starring Daniel Radcliffe, Zoey Kazan, Megan Park, Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis, & Rafe Spall

WHAT IF is the story of medical school dropout Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe), who’s been repeatedly burned by bad relationships. So, while everyone around him, incl. his best friend Allan (Adam Driver), seems to be finding the perfect partner, Wallace decides to put his love life on hold. It is then that he meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan), an animator, who lives with her longtime boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall). Wallace and Chantry form an instant connection, striking up a close friendship. Still, there is no denying the chemistry between them, leading the pair to wonder, what if the love of your life is actually your best friend? -Synopsis from CBS Films

In Canada and the UK, this rom com (free on Amazon Prime) was called The F Word (as in “friend”); Hollywood changed it to avoid the R rating (LOL). It is based on the play titled Toothpaste & Cigars by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi. Radcliffe (at 25 y.o.) said that this role is the 1st contemporary character he’s ever played: “There was something lovely about just stepping up on set and talking.” The director (Michael Dawse) is Canadian; the screenwriter (Elan Mastai) later went on to work on the hit TV series This is Us (2016). The filmmakers brought the cast back together over 2 weekends to create a new ending, 18 mos. after the original one. Radcliffe was initially hesitant about changing the ending b/c of how much he loved the original (“kind of old-school Hollywood.”) After shooting and watching the screening, he was happy w/ the new ending.

Wallace: In fairy tales, love inspires you to be noble and courageous, but in real life, love is just an all-purpose excuse for selfish behavior. You can lie and cheat and hurt people, and it’s all okay because you’re in love.

I ONLY watched this movie for Driver (just keeping it real); this is his 1st rom com! I found the size difference between Radcliffe (5’5″) and Driver (6’3″) comedic. Their characters also have different personalities; Wallace lives in his head and is more of a thinker, while Allan is extroverted and acts on impulse. Allan and Nicole (Mackenzie Davis) have a love (or lust) at 1st sight connection at Allan’s house party. Driver and Davis (who I first noticed on Black Mirror) make a hot couple; both are V tall, lean, w/ frenetic energy. Driver brings humor and does well w/ what was given. The dancing scenes at the wedding are funny.

Allan: I just had s*x and I’m about to eat NACHOS! IT’S THE GREATEST MOMENT OF MY LIFE!

The relationship which develops between Wallace and Chantry (Allan’s cousin) is slow/complicated. I thought the scene where Wallace and Chantry meet by chance at a screening of The Princess Bride was cute. There was a LOT of banter (perhaps TOO much), esp. between Radcliffe and Kazan (w/ petite build and only 5’4″). Another petite actress (Sarah Gadon) plays a young doc who’s the ex-gf of Wallace; I really liked her performances in Belle and a Canadian TV series- Alias Grace. There are really NOT many stakes in this movie. Wallace is NOT interested in Dalia (Megan Park), the lovelorn/annoying sis of Chantry. Also, Ben (who is a nice guy) is sent off to Dublin for 6 mos. (removing possible tension between him and Wallace). I didn’t see the point of having the animation scenes. There are points where the movie drags. If you’re NOT a fan of the rom com genre, this may tax your patience.

Allan: It’s complicated. All this love shit’s complicated. And that’s good. Because if it’s too simple you’ve got no reason to try, and if you’ve got no reason to try, you don’t.

[1] Have you ever watched a film that was pretty good but easily could have been better? Well, that’s my reaction to What If… It’s a pretty decent little romance, but the film also sure looks like the script could have used a decent editing, as sometimes the dialog is needlessly offensive...

The film is much like the premise behind When Harry Met Sally. In other words, it questions whether a man and woman can be just friends and stay that way.

[2] Poor Daniel Radcliffe, it will be a long time before we think of him as anything else but Harry Potter. But give him credit, he is now establishing himself as a reliable young adult actor. After all he turned 25 in 2014 so these sorts of roles are appropriate for him.

[3] Adam Driver from Girls is a tamer version of Adam Sackler and he works quite well.

[4] …this film isn’t as quirky or as entertaining as it thinks it is…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Tracks” (2013) starring Mia Wasikowska & Adam Driver

Some nomads are at home everywhere. Others are at home nowhere, and I was one of those.

– Robyn Davidson

In 1977, a 27 y.o. Australian woman, Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska), set out from Alice Springs (Northern Territory) to trek across 2,700 km of harsh desert of Western Australia to reach the ocean. Accompanied by her dog and 4 camels, she had NO other purpose than to find herself on a journey of self-discovery. At points along the trip, Robyn is joined by a young American photographer, Rick Smolan (Adam Driver); he works for National Geographic (which sponsored her trip). The director (John Curran) is an American; he worked on We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004), The Painted Veil (2006), and various TV series. The cinematographer (D.P.) is an Aussie woman (Mandy Walker); she worked on Australia (2008), Hidden Figures (2016), and Mulan (2020).

Robyn: [in letter to the publisher of Nat Geo] I am well aware of the hardship I will be facing. I am the first to admit I’m remarkably unqualified for such a hazardous undertaking. But this is precisely the point of my journey. I’d like to think an ordinary person is capable of anything.

There were several prior attempts to bring Davidson’s adventure memoir (also titled Tracks) to the big screen; she is a well-known in her native country. Over the years, Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman were attached to the lead role. The actual clothes (skirts, blouses, flannel shirts, etc.) that Davidson wore during her trek were recreated in fine detail. Wasikowka (who is an Aussie and of Polish heritage) gained acclaim as a troubled teen gymnast in S1 (2008) of HBO’s In Treatment; she played the lead in Jane Eyre (2011) opposite Michael Fassbender. She went to a “camel boot camp” for 3 days to learn how to work w/ the animals.

Rick: I didn’t realize how big camels are. It’s like a cow and giraffe mixture. It’s crazy.

She’s an awesome, ferocious actor. She’s so present in the moment, playful, and brave. And you can’t really ask for a better scene partner, I think. -Driver re: Wasikowska

I didn’t know much re: this film until recently; I assumed it was re: a road trip starring Driver (from the few US ads and comments by his long-time fans on social media). This is more about the female character- Robyn- who is introverted/reserved (preferring animals to people). On the other hand, Rick is an extrovert/chatty (who wants to get to know people). I don’t think I’ve ever seen Driver smile so much in a role (which is refreshing)! Wasikowska and Driver (wearing wire-rimmed glasses and clothes of that era) bring differing energies to their roles; she is bemused (maybe even annoyed) by his ebullience. Driver takes on a physicality that it “a bit awkward” (as Curran commented), though it is part of the sweet/nerdy charm of his character. Both Davidson and Smolan participated w/ the filmmakers on this movie; Smolan has a brief cameo as a park ranger. You can see this (free) on IMDbTV!

[1]...the human story is impressive, showing us a side of camels that I had no clue of. Camels as other animals obviously have their own personality and their own mind, seeing this depicted in a movie like this is amazing. Speaking of amazing: It’s not only the performances of the actors that are great, but also the visual presentation of the journey we’re taking with the “characters”. Inspiring and emotional, this might be able to touch you, if you go along with it (no pun intended).

[2] Despite the fact that it is often leisurely in the telling of Robyn’s true story and that Robyn is, for much of the running time, the only person on screen, it is never less than engaging. […]

Mia Wasikowska is very good in this gently moving film, but the real stars of this beautifully photographed story are the Australian desert and the camels.

[3] …the screenplay by Marion Nelson superbly uses brief flashbacks to give a psychological depth to what Davidson is trekking over, which never over powers the spiritual and personal discover that Davidson is making on the tracks. Largely taking place in the desert, Nelson avoids things drying up by crossing Davidson’s solo walk with intersections which take Davidson out of the self-imposed wilderness,as a sweet bond of friendship builds with Smolan, and Davidson learns of a completely different culture from the aboriginals.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Art, Gender, & Desire: “Venus in Fur” (2013) starring Mathieu Amalric & Emmanuelle Seigner

Based on the Tony-winning Broadway play by American writer, David Ives, Venus in Fur is a 2013 French film by famed/controversial director Roman Polanski. Alone in a Paris theater after a long day of auditioning actresses for his new play, writer-director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), complains to his fiancee (on the phone) that no actress has what it takes to play the lead female character. Thomas is about to leave the theater when actress Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) bursts in, a whirlwind of energy. At first, she is pushy, desperate, and not prepared- or so it seems. Under her coat, Vanda wears a risque black leather and lace outfit (w/ a dog collar). Thomas reluctantly agrees to let her try out; he is stunned by her transformation. Vanda is perfect (even sharing the character’s name); she obviously researched the role, learned the lines by heart, and brought along some props! As the audition continues, Thomas’ feelings go from from attraction to obsession, and Vanda takes on a more dominant role in the story. Vanda comes to tower over Thomas as she becomes stronger.

This was Polanski’s first non-English feature film in over 51 yrs; I saw it several years ago (and didn’t realize he was the director). I re-watched it on YouTube (it’s available for rent). The lighting is superb and the music (composed by Frenchman Alexandre Desplat) is used very well. He moves the story from NYC to Paris, b/c Polanski wanted to work w/ his wife in her native language- French. Originally, Vanda was a 24 y.o. actress (thus her short resume) and Thomas was a young playwright (w/ a few plays under his belt). On Broadway, then recent NYU grad- Nina Arianda- made a name for herself (2010-2012) as Vanda opposite Wes Bentley and Hugh Dancy. In London, Natalie Dormer (The Tudors; Game of Thrones) played the role opposite David Oakes. Louis Garrel (who is young and conventionally handsome) was originally cast as Thomas for this movie. Amalric is middle-aged, w/ a small build, and dark/intense eyes. As some viewers noted, he resembles a younger Polanski. Amalric’s mother comes from a Polish/Jewish family; she was born in the Polish village where Polanski lived w/ his family before WWII. Directors don’t make decisions w/o a reason!

Forget that badly-written and adapted Fifty Shades trilogy! There are several layers to this clever story of power imbalance: woman vs. man (in the play set in 1870), actor who wants the role vs. director who decides who gets the role (in the theater), and man vs. goddess (Venus AKA Aphrodite). It’s also about life imitating art, hidden desires, misogyny, and role playing. Thomas has to read w/ Vanda b/c none of the actors are there; it turns out that he’s really into it. Thomas starts out directing Vanda, but later she doesn’t hesitate in directing him. She even knows how to adjust the lights in the theater- hmmm. They put on and take off clothing to create these characters, as is common backstage in the theater. They quickly and easily switch from being themselves to the characters in the play!

[1] Thanks to the brilliant connections between literature, stage and reality, and thanks to the many things that remain unclear about the character’s real identities and motivations, this movie sounds much more like a question than like a an answer…

[2] The characters conflict with each other perfectly, I don’t mean that they completely disagree on everything, I mean that they disagree on a certain number of things and they agree on a certain number of things for their characters to have great chemistry.

[3] What was most surprising for me is how much we laughed during the film. It was really hilarious…

[4] The mystery of who exactly Vanda is keeps getting bigger until it reaches deific proportions…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews