Side Effects


Release: Friday, February 8, 2013


This is not the movie the trailer was advertising. Or is it? I think these little blue pills are starting to have their effect on me finally. But in this case, that’s a really good thing. What an intense film!!!

Steven Soderbergh’s “final” big-screen release is delivered with style, intensity and an often off-kilter, ADHD-esque viewpoint on the subject of prescription meds and the role they play in changing their user — for the better and for the worse. Soderbergh’s story brilliantly blends both positives and negatives of anti-depressants here in Side Effects, giving us one of the more memorable and provocative stories thus far in 2013.

Centering around the beautiful but troubled Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), Side Effects takes us on a journey ranging anywhere from the psychological challenges posed by depression, to the cold-cash and colder-hearted nature of the business of medicine, to the legal aspects of prescribing drug trials. Having said that, this film is just as much about Emily as it is about Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who is the doctor Emily is seeing. After Emily’s husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from prison having served a sentence for participating in some insider trading, she finds herself again unable to cope with the emotional rollercoaster that is her life.

Naturally, a highly likable doc (in my eyes, Jude Law can really do no wrong) steps in to help Emily through the difficult time and prescribes her a variety of anti-depressants, each with their own unwanted side effects taking their toll on Emily. This eventually culminates in Martin’s wanting to have his wife off meds completely, as he sees all of these effects taking a strong hold on her, and worse — their relationship.

Dr. Banks has another idea, though. He chooses to prescribe a fairly new trial drug called Ablixa to Emily since all else has failed up until now. Now, without giving too much away, here’s where things start to get a little fuzzy. Cue one of Dr. Banks’ partners, Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who used to treat Emily. With her presence, we get a new angle on the story of Emily Taylor; that is to say, we start to get an idea of just how bad that girl’s situation is.

A side effect of reviewing in depth a film this complex is providing spoilers, some minor and some major, so now I am going to hush and let you all enjoy the film. But I won’t pass up an opportunity to say just how thoroughly gripping this picture becomes. From the outset the dialogue and context of each character is so well written that even those annoying people getting up to go pee-pee mid-movie won’t distract. But for God’s sake, please….remember that it’s okay to blink once in a while. My eyes were extremely dry when it finished!


3-5Recommendation: I think I was a good candidate to see this film since I can identify with struggling through bouts of depression and up-and-down emotions. In that way, this movie may have spoken to me louder than it may to others, but I still believe Soderbergh’s latest invention is one of his strongest. And I truly doubt this will be his final one.

Running Time: 106 mins.

Rated: R

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Zero Dark Thirty

Release: Friday, December 21, 2012


When the first trailers for Zero Dark Thirty were coming out, I met them with such skepticism. How could Hollywood possibly try to capitalize on one of the worst tragedies that has ever happened on American soil? I know it is business, but come on. A good friend of mine who served in the Navy shared my concern, thinking that whoever pitched this idea was being a little premature in glamorizing the hunt for Osama bin Laden. As it turns out, we were both premature in judging this film.

Kathryn Bigelow returns to the director’s chair in this extremely suspenseful story that follows the United States’ most elite group of intelligence and military operatives as they track down the man responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Bigelow has already proved her talents when she put out 2008’s The Hurt Locker, and here she is simply sharpening her vision. In two hours and forty minutes Bigelow manages to handle all the data, personnel, strategies, emotional ups-and-downs, the controversies, sacrifices and successes, and various other elements that made this mission one of the most difficult and dangerous — and she molds all of it into a rather compelling drama that turns out to be not your typical action-drama.

Without a doubt, a lot of what makes this film so tense and compelling is the sensitivity of its source material. Making a movie about hunting down the head of the terrorist group al-Qaeda is crazy enough. That this film is not a far cry from the realities of these real-life heroes — you can get a good sense of how certain discussions went in real life with the excellent and pointed conversations that comprise the bulk of Zero Dark Thirty — is surely Bigelow’s greater achievement here.

The film is presented as a broad timeline, spanning the decade during which America was on the hunt for the world’s most dangerous man. There are titles that introduce each section, and quite often somewhere within each segment a character or action references back to the name of said segment, hence giving the film not only a rather distanced vantage point on each main event that develops along the way, but the overall project ends up having a documentary kind of feel to it.

She begins the film with a series of brutal scenes that graphically depict America’s interrogation procedures in the first years of The War on Terror. Thanks to a strong cast including Jason Clarke, who plays Dan (one of the more zealous interrogators) and Jessica Chastain (Maya — I’ll get to her later, she’s fantastic) the initial half hour immerses us in the controversy of the nature of detainee treatment and America’s methods for acquiring information. The camera does not flinch from the moments of gurgling suffocation, a.k.a. water-boarding; it does not break away when Ammar (the detainee Dan and his crew focus on) is shoved into a tiny box when he continues to defy the Americans. Quite literally, the suspected connection to the terrorist organization is treated like a dog. As uncomfortable as these scenes make us, our attention has been grabbed, and it won’t really be let go for the duration of the film.

In a project that is ambitious as this, the details really have to be paid close attention to. Bigelow knows this, of course. She masterfully pieces together a complex puzzle that revolves around Chastain’s Maya and her role in the pinpointing and killing of Osama bin Laden in his fortress compound located in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Although the film lends fascinating, albeit controversial, insight into how the CIA was thinking and operating during this trying time, strangely enough we don’t get too personal with anyone in particular. Not even Maya, whose antisocial tendencies more than definitely helped pave the road — metaphorically and literally — to the compound where the ailing bin Laden was hiding out. I suppose her character is the closest we get to empathizing with in this movie, but it goes without saying we already know how we’re going to be feeling going into this thing.

That feeling of anxiety and despair, of anger and bitterness is further heightened in the opening minute or two, when we hear multiple panicked phone calls made by the victims trapped in the World Trade Center on that fateful day. Perhaps no other scene in the movie zeroes in on the details like this scene, complete with a simple black screen that only serves to exaggerate the desperation you hear in these audio tracks.

Following the torture scenes, we are quickly swept up by a long second act that is densely packed with information regarding how the CIA, particularly Maya, went about breaking down the barriers to information that stood for so long. If you’re coming into this film expecting two hours of nonstop action, prepare to be sorely mistaken, as the action — apart from the occasional bomb explosion and random acts of violence in pockets of the Middle East where Maya and her team find themselves in — more or less settles down until the exhilarating final third of the film where the Navy SEAL mission is enacted in a real-time sequence.

However our trusted filmmakers here have come under some fire both from critics of the film and of high-ranking governmental officials. There’s been all kinds of hoopla about the “enhanced interrogation techniques” on display early on in the film; that Zero Dark Thirty inaccurately links these scenes to the CIA gaining leverage over key terrorist connections — apparently water-boarding was not used to the extent that this film would have you believe. Still others want to dismiss the role of Maya, insisting that this character is really a composite of several key CIA agents who helped bring bin Laden to his knees. I am quicker to agree to that, than any other argument opposing this film’s accuracy.

Of course this film would be controversial, though. I don’t think it would be nearly as good if it didn’t create a stir. Of course it would raise some questions about the true nature of this 10-year manhunt. I don’t think a war film has ever gone gently into that good night. Even with all these questions flying around, you still can’t deny how thoroughly engaging this piece of work is. I’m not really in a position where I can argue for or against its accuracies (I guess I could do some research) but I believe I do have the authority to judge whether or not this would be a film worth watching or not. Being an ex-SEAL, or ex-anything-governmental probably would bring down the entertainment factor. So as a innocent bystander, a movie critic, I have but one thing to say: relative to the world of Bigelow’s work, this is an extremely believable and accurate story, one that takes us out of the comforts of our homes in the U.S. and deep into the heart of darkness; into the backyards of our enemies.

Because the film doesn’t play out as a character-study, or develop any of its characters to any extent — again, the closest we really get to anyone is Maya, whom we are following throughout the entire film — the final act, the actual mission where the Navy SEALS are bringing the fire directly to bin Laden, is all the more effective. It is realistic and white-knuckle suspense. Going in for “the man on the third floor,” as the SEALS call bin Laden when they’re in his hideout, the final assault is believable as a relatively small covert op that drags behind it the weight of the world. The implications of a failure here would be disastrous on the grandest scale. When the doors are being blown open, the world is watching using night vision goggles. It’s intense and, surprisingly, as popcorn-entertainment as Bigelow is going to allow her effort to get.

While I can understand exactly where people might take issues with the way certain sections of this film play out — whether its with the exact types of “enhanced interrogation” techniques that are used throughout, or whether or not you can assume that all these beatings and other punishments ultimately led to detainees eventually caving (some reports say that only top-wanted detainees who were not cooperating whatsoever got water-boarded with approval from Washington) — its much easier to let all of that go in your mind and sit back and watch this spectacle unfold. And the timing of its release, honestly, is nothing short of perfect. Let another decade, or even five years get in between its release and the capturing and killing of bin Laden (in May of 2011) and you might risk a stagnating sense of indifference toward the event beginning to form. While it’s fresh on everyone’s mind, you have the best chance of success.


4-0Recommendation: Definitely an important film, and the final product is nothing like what the first trailers were first giving the impression of. For anyone who has served in the armed forces, I think an asterisk could be placed on its theater marquee just to caution, ‘Hey, come for the experience, not for all the facts.’ Of course, that’s not to say this movie is chockfull of lies, either.

Rated: R

Running Time: 157 mins.

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Bullet to the Head


Release: Friday, February 1, 2013


Funny enough, Mr. Stallone, revenge does start to get old once we catch on in this flick that this will probably be the only thing you’re going to be doing for the rest of your career. If Rocky’s story was all about some redemption, Sylvester Stallone would appear to be writing a story about his actual life that is quite contradictory. After all, this film doesn’t do much in the way of redeeming anything at all. And it certainly has no plans for giving back all the spilled blood to the fallen.

In this new Walter Hill-directed actioner, we literally get nothing new from Stallone, his opponents, and there’s barely a soul who wants to stand close enough to Stallone’s thuggier-than-ever anti-hero, James Bonomo, for us to even be able to tell if there’s a side we should be taking here. The short answer to that is there’s not really anyone worth cheering for. Everyone is basically as bad as one another in this super-bloody, gorier-than-expected cast-off film.

I’m sorry if I’m bashing hard against this film at the moment, but sometimes films are lacking the tough love from the critics when they [the films] lack love of any sort in the manner in which they were created. Sometimes you need to fight with axes to make your point. Oh wait. Hold on, no that’s actually something that happens in the film and as it turns out, that also serves as a decent metaphor for me to use in describing my overall disappointment with Bullet to the Head. Of course, no one’s biting their tongue harder than I am when people ask me, well what did you expect out of a Stallone picture? A modern Stallone picture, at that. Touché. I guess what I was hanging my hopes on was a fulfilling story involving the big brute, at least something for us to gnash our teeth into while watching Stallone do what he does best.

But Bullet to the Head is a rather empty project that spares no empathy towards those who get in James Bonomo’s path — let’s face it, it’s not going to be a plot spoiler if I tell you all the bad guys get their clocks cleaned. Twice. Stallone is playing the part of a rather powerful hit man who is on a mission to avenge his former partner’s death during a typical job. (Even writing that seems silly — I mean do these crazy bastards always expect for things to go smoothly all the time? Is that even logical, avenging a dead hit man?)

Anywho. . .

Stallone’s character is boring due to its incredible one-dimensional “I’m gonna kill ’em all” mentality. In fact I think those are some of his pithiest lines in the film: “I’m gonna kill you.” After going it alone for a long while, Bonomo takes on a second partner, of sorts, when an intelligent and virtually indestructible cop, Taylor (played by Sung Kang) comes upon the city of New Orleans after one of his partners ends up with X’s for eyes. It’s the perfect mismatched duo but it needed to be developed at considerable length for us to really have any fun with either of them — or trust the cop for things other than using his impressive trigger finger. Alas, this is the case for almost all of the elements in Bullet.

Despite Stallone’s inexplicable ability to look more epic every time he stands fully upright — although he’s pretty well-matched in physique with the likes of this Keegan character (Jason Momoa) and some of his henchmen — this film wastes a ton of potential in drawing out a truly sinister story where it could. Believe me, there’s violence and action aplenty — I couldn’t actually count the number of minutes spent on the fight sequences, but my bet is over 40 of them were dedicated to people’s asses just being kicked. That’s good stuff in and of itself, but as Stallone advances in age, audience expectations (or mine, anyway) are also advancing to higher levels.

As this film is based off of a graphic novel, the final result is even more disappointing in that there are no twists, turns or anything really unexpected and instead we follow it strictly by the rules set forth by most action films. I guess it’s alright though, because after seeing several scenes of graphic violence, we come to learn that Bonomo (or “Bobo”) has a really attractive daughter; he doesn’t really pay much attention to her though. I suppose that is only fitting for a movie that is so careless with its handling of potentially lethal material. If Hill paid as much attention to the details of dialogue and character-development as he did with the way people died in his movie, then perhaps we would have a ‘welcome back’ party for Sly, since this is his first major role that was not either Rocky or Rambo in over a decade (that also excludes his role in The Expendables).

Nope. In this case, not a single one of us will really care enough to do so much as play the kazoo to welcome him back to the big screen. We will have to wait until the next time around. And if someone would kindly take down all the banners and streamers, please. . . . .that was embarrassing I even thought to put those up here.


2-0Recommendation: While not a total waste of a film, Bullet to the Head plays it safe and sticks to formulaic action drama. This is nothing significant to add to Stallone’s already impressively manly career. So I say go if you’re a big Stallone fan. But you may also want to bring a dictionary or a translator or something, because it’s starting to get hard to understand the guy.

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 mins.

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Release: Saturday, June 23, 2012 (TV)


A man becomes obsessed with a woman he meets during an online poker game and does whatever he can to keep the fantasy alive, which unfortunately will mean resorting to violence where necessary, in this powerful and gripping made-for-television drama based on the 2009 documentary about actual events.

Okay so Talhotblond may slip by you for several reasons: the cast is nothing really invigorating, its debut on the Lifetime network makes it more obscure than something on the big-screen, and the chances of it having a seat at an awards ceremony is slim-to-none, even though the importance of this film cannot be understated. As the internet becomes more and more of an extension of our daily lives, it becomes more important we draw lines between the world we inhabit and that of the one we enter when going online. It goes without saying that the world of the internet has affected and will affect people in varying degrees and in different ways, but here comes the worst case scenario. What if you could no longer be able to separate out in your head that which you experience in cyberspace — say, a fling that you’ve “entered into” with a particular player at the poker table at, as the case is here — from that which you experience away from the computer?

The film centers around one of these individuals, whose problem reaches tragic proportions. Talhotblond does a remarkable job of focusing intently on the character of Thomas Montgomery (Garret Dillahunt), a middle-aged husband and father of two daughters. It slowly reveals the changes in his personality throughout, and while the acting is never stellar, the direction and storyline feed us just enough material to really buy into the skewed psychology of a man who’s clearly losing his grip on reality.

The picture starts out innocent enough: Thomas works as a low-level employee at a steel mill, cutting up bits of metal for use in furniture and whatnot, and we get to meet some of his coworkers whom he plays poker with once a month. There’s Brian (Brando Eaton), Ray (Michael Dunn) and a couple others Thomas maybe occasionally talks to at the poker table. A quiet and reserved man, Thomas is at first skeptical of the idea of playing cards online, since he says the best part of poker is the social aspect. Since his family life does not allow him to play more than the one night, he eventually caves and falls in love with the online game as well.

The game itself is harmless. The chatroom associated with the game, however, isn’t. This is where he is invited into a private chat with someone operating behind the pseudonym ‘talhotblond,’ and Thomas is immediately smitten. The two begin an intimate online relationship, chatting every single night and prompting Thomas to eventually purchase a new laptop so he can play nightly without having to make his wife share the single household computer. As if that’s not becoming suspicious enough, the distance he begins to put between himself and his entire family earns his wife, Carol’s (Laura San Giacomo) attention. She admits that while he’s not the most talkative man, something is most definitely different about him.

The direction of the film really contributes to the disturbing psychology of its story. For all intents and purposes, we are basically jumping into the mind of Thomas Montgomery, and there is little to no time wasted in doing so. A precious few minutes are spent on developing a little of his family and the guys he plays poker with but virtually from the opening ten or fifteen minutes we are in deep here. We see right away the kind of person he is — or wants to be, which is more to the point. As Carol notices her husband spending increasing amounts of time on the laptop she remains virtually oblivious to the fact that he has undertaken an online personality, that of Tommy, a young, battle-hardened Marine who is about to leave for a tour in the Middle East. (This is his excuse for not seeing Katie, a.k.a. ‘talhotblond,’ anyway.)

But all things come to an end, as Tommy/Thomas is about to learn. Things remain tense and become more and more unsettling as the film maintains a rather quick pace. Again, because the tempo and an almost inconceivably perverse reality complement the solid scriptwriting, Talhotblond relies not on superb acting chops or particularly dramatic “big” moments to keep our knuckles white. The horizon rarely expands beyond the unusually intense concerns of one Thomas Montgomery and the devastating effects his obsession takes on his family.

Thomas may end up having to sleep on a couch in his own garage for awhile, but you can be sure that by the end of the movie, that will not be the worst place he will end up. You can also prepare for a rather heartbreaking conclusion.

Surprisingly, as Thomas’ plight takes turns for the darker and more disturbing after being sniffed out by his own family, it’s actually toward the very end when the worst news of all comes to light. The true identities of our main characters will devastate you. On some level I’m shocked a single person could be so cruel but then I have to immediately force myself to become un-shocked because we now live in an era where the Internet more often than not changes reality for us. The better of us will not or should not allow ourselves the temptations of the world wide web’s more alluring. . . . things. Actually they’re not even really all that alluring. . . they’re just, there. All the time. Vying for our attention. We’ve gotta be careful.


3-5Recommendation: If you can find this little diddy, I highly suggest you watch it. Scope your local RedBox or surf Netflix for best results. Or you might get lucky enough to catch it on T.V. Either way, be prepared to be deeply disturbed.

Running Time: 120 mins.

Rated: TV-14

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