“Side Effects”–Warning: Contraindications

Side Effects

Side Effects” opens with Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) being released from prison after serving a four-year sentence for insider trading.  His wife Emily (Rooney Mara) is frail, severely depressed, and disinterested in Martin’s re-entering her life.  Soon her world unravels as she becomes dependent upon a new, experimental antidepressant prescribed by Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), on the recommendation of Emily’s previous therapist Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

The side effects of the antidepressant seem to be the cause for Emily committing a horrific crime and Banks mounts a defense to keep her from being convicted. The crime is bad, really bad. But the question is not who did it but who should be held responsible?  What follows is a dark quest for the diabolical truth of this tragedy. You think you know what’s happening — but you don’t. Almost every character has secrets, lies, and hidden motives.

Rooney Mara is stunning as the wounded woman who seems to have been victimized by the antidepressant prescribed to heal her.  As her counterpoint, Jude Law gives an almost flawless performance as a self-doubting character who struggles with the consequences and repercussions of his actions defending Emily. Both Law’s and Mara’s characters cause the viewer to vacillate between allegiance and sympathy for one over the other in a dizzying set of changing circumstances. The scenes they share are the most arresting in their complexity and ambiguity of the facts.

By releasing only one detail at a time, we are kept wading through interviews, court hearings, false turns, and psychiatrist visits until, finally, everything comes together. The entire film is very subdued, impeccably structured, and intricate in plot.   You will be rewarded in the end as the spiraling momentum towards the conclusion is so unexpected and mostly unpredictable until its final scene. 

 This film is purportedly Steven Soderbergh’s last work before retiring.  Don’t miss it!


[Available on Netflix.]



“Shattered”–aka “Butterfly on a Wheel”


This intriguing tale of vengeance is centered on a theme found in Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” (1735) in which placing undue effort on a minor issue is like breaking a “butterfly on a wheel”.  And this first-rate thriller was so named in its British and Canadian release (2007), to be retitled “Shattered” for an American audience.

The story takes place in Chicago, where Neil Randall (played by the surprisingly good Gerald Butler) is an executive of an advertising agency. He is a cunning ad man plotting his path to the top while also a family man with a beautiful and sexy wife, Abby (Maria Bello) and a lovely young daughter, Sophie.  He is living the American Dream.

His wife Abby hires a babysitter so that she and her husband can spend the weekend at the CEO’s country house, presumably to cultivate even more political points to becoming his successor.  Without giving away too much of the plot, all I will say is that a mysterious intruder, Tom Ryan (the exceptional Pierce Brosnan) turns their world upside down. While keeping the couple under his total control, he makes it clear that his overriding intention is to destroy Neil’s perfect life.

“Shattered” is paced to perfection.  What unfolds rapidly is a cat-and-mouse game in which the clues and menace are only hinted at, but always cleverly hidden.  There are so many curves along the way, that even when viewers think they have figured out motivation and outcome, with a plot this peppered with red herrings, the vast majority will be thrown off track.

Once again, we get to see that Pierce Brosnan is not just another pretty face, but capable of remarkable acting in a role contrary to those he has played in the past.  Maria Bello is often unrecognized even though she consistently is outstanding, as she is here.  And Gerald Butler is perhaps featured in his only respectable role to date, revealing that he really can act.

“Shattered” should have received major distribution, great fanfare, advance hype and viral marketing, as well as viewer recommendations.I wonder how such a gem flew under the radar. Perhaps a little more effort should have been placed on this edgy little sleeper of a movie.

“The Page Turner”–Notes to a Thriller

The Page Turner

A French cinematic sleeper (2006), “The Page Turner” is a thriller as subtle as a sonata, fine-tuned and intricately composed.

The story opens with young gifted pianist Mélanie Prouvost, the ten-year-old daughter of a butcher, methodically practicing for an entrance exam to a prestigious music conservatory.  She and her parents have high expectations and she is determined to be one of the students. Beginning the audition in top form, Mélanie is thrown off balance by one of the judges Ariane Fouchecourt who, rather oblivious to her performance, signs an autograph, distracting Mélanie with devastating consequences.   She waits ten years, plotting her revenge on Ariane who, she feels, sealed her fate never to play again.

Mélanie soon becomes a legal secretary for Ariane Fouchecourt’s husband and rapidly insinuates her way into the lives of those whom she considers her targets–the Fouchecourt family.  At their estate Mélanie soon becomes indispensible: as a nanny to their young son, and more importantly, as the perfect page-turner for Ariane who, although famous, aspires to be at the top tier of pianists with recording contracts.  Shattered dreams and a lopsided dependency propel the pretty Mélanie to become so much more than a page-turner to Ariane and her son.  The husband needs Mélanie also, so he can continue as a highly successful, peripatetic corporate lawyer.

A psychological thriller and tale of vengeance, “The Page Turner” reveals, thread by thread, the web Mélanie weaves, entrapping the Fouchecourts with her charm, efficiency, and musical aptitude. Mélanie assumes the sweet taste of revenge will be hers.  As viewers we do not know what to expect.

The genius of “The Page Turner” is how everyone is blindsided by Mélanie’s corrosive plan for revenge.  The film ripples with the relentless logic of a set of calculus functions.  The younger woman baits the older like a calculating spider. It’s a cold but undeniably mesmerizing page-turner!


“Endeavour”–A Prequel to the Inspector Morse Series


“Endeavour” is the much-anticipated mystery series currently on Sunday evenings on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery.  A testament to the beloved long-running Inspector Morse series (1987-2000), this series is the back story for young DC Morse before he became the curmudgeonly middle-aged Chief Inspector Morse.

Set in Oxford in 1965 Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) is a rookie in his late twenties, a Detective Constable (DC) freshly minted from Oxford to assist Inspector Fred Thursday (the awesome stage actor Roger Allam), a rational, insightful policeman who sees Morse’s potential and gives him the latitude to explore unconventional methods for solving a crime.  Inspector Thursday’s superior does not feel the same way about Morse and frequently tries to demote him to a desk assignment.

What makes this series thrilling is the way the middle-aged Morse can be seen in the flashbacks to the younger man. The roots of his moodiness and taciturn nature are evident at every turn–“an old young man”.

But this young DC Morse is not simply a clone without idiosyncrasies.  He has a toughness–an alloy of innocence, determination, and guile.  DC Morse has a life of his own in solving each murder with more convoluted turns than the classic Inspector Morse mysteries. Last Sunday night’s episode, “Girl”, was a finely crafted and intricate tapestry of clues tightly woven and carefully laid out so the attentive viewer could follow the puzzle-solving system of Morse’s mind with cryptic clues, unbreakable codes, wordplay, and obscure literary allusions.

Japanese Art as Metaphor: “Return to the Sea” and “Hanga Reinvented”


Japanese contemporary art can be a wonder to behold, as evidenced by the current exhibit at the Monterey Museum of Art.  These two ongoing exhibits are not to be missed.  The first is a 300-pound salt installation that covers  1800 sq. ft. of the gallery floor, now roped off so that the observer doesn’t inadvertently step on the salt. Motoi Yamamoto’s lovingly created artwork is a commemoration of his sister’s death almost twenty years ago.

Table salt has been painstakingly drawn with a needle-nosed bottle to create a lacy, macramé-like image of two typhoons, resembling a labyrinth of string or lace spiraling delicately into a meditative vortex.  Traditionally used for purification rituals to send the dearly departed to the afterlife, salt (or sand) is a Buddhist symbol for the ephemeral nature of life and materialism.  Yamamoto’s work is similar to the Tibetan Buddhist sand paintings, involving painting a mandala, then  sweeping the work and transporting the containers of sand to a river to be washed away.  So too Yamamoto’s “SaltWorks” installation will be swept into bottles,   transported to Fisherman’s Wharf , and returned to the sea.  The public is invited to participate on August 25 at 1:00 pm.  According to the artist, returning the salt to the sea is a healing process, a rejuvenation and experience of  a happier time.  [See the video clip of the installation at: http://vimeo.com/68486340].

The second exhibit focuses on Japanese late 20th century woodblock and screen prints.

Fukita Fumiaki
Fukita Fumiaki

These hanga (lit. “prints”), part of the museum’s permanent collection, feature a break from the traditional pre-20th century ukiyo-e, a highly stylized process of woodblock carving and representational subject matter.  The contemporary hanga exhibit utilizes not only woodcut but also silkscreen and etching techniques.  These prints have a vivid abstract format with brilliant colors, bold geometric compositions, and experimental use of negative space.   My personal favorites are Yukio Fukazawa, Fukita Fumiaki and Kiyoshi Saito: some of their work is not available for viewing even online.  A sheer visual thrill for all art lovers in the Monterey area!

Yukio Fukazawa
Yukio Fukazawa