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Wednesday
Feb132013

In Which We Examine The Label On The Bottle

Very Polished

by SHELBY SHAW 
 
Side Effects  
dir. Steven Soderbergh
106 min.

When my therapist suggested looking into medication to control my anxiety, I simply said, “OK, I’ll think about it”  and I never did anything more. I did not tell her, “OK, and by the way tomorrow I’m going to go see a movie about anti-depressants and murder."

Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh’s supposedly last film prior to retiring now that he claims “movies don’t matter any more,” tells a murder mystery we have seen before but wrapped in contemporary Manhattan, insider trading, and plenty of brand name prescription drugs at least one person in your building has touched before, such as Zoloft, Prozac, Wellbutrin, Adderall, etc.

But this is not a movie about prescription drugs. It is a movie about doing anything for yourself: ridding your life of what seems to drag it down, seducing the person you truly love, and conspiring in the most tangled of ways to achieve enemy and lover number one, money.

And yet,it could easily be said too that Side Effects is really a film about editing. A metaphor for human behavior, of course, but even more so what is and is not shown to audiences. The reveal that seems to continually unravel and uncover itself for the last 45 minutes or so isn’t mainly a short-story kind of statement, a byte of dialogue that turns on your aha consciousness. It is a montage of what you didn’t see happening earlier, the scenes you did not ever think of because  well, why would you?

A screenplay’s pages are the most precious real estate a writer has, so filling up on words and actions un-absolutely-necessary is a bad move. But then Soderbergh shows you exactly these scenes, albeit few, working backwards to show you the spaces that you had been watching, but were unaware of, like having turned your back on the party guests for a moment to pour some more wine.

This short part in the plot’s twist does much to make you think twice about everything you did and did not witness onscreen. It’s a creative catalyst for helping understand what really happened, for helping distinguish between the placebo of the plot and the truly affected. But the ending, a morsel of smart layers, is not enough to hide some of the unintentional flaws that seeped through Scott Z. Burns' script.

Before Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) welcomes home her newly-released-from-jail husband, Martin (Channing Tatum) after a four-year stint from insider trading, she thanks her design-firm boss (Polly Draper) for understanding. The exchange feels modern, short words but sympathetic. I become aware of how close the camera is, particularly on Emily. For the rest of the film, it is largely shot in close-ups that can quickly be disorienting. Upon reflection, it is almost an obsessive character study of Emily.

When Martin and Emily try to have sex for the first time, his heavy breathing feels uncomfortably too loud in the darkness, and when he apologizes to Emily afterwards, I feel he is apologizing to me. Later when they have actual sex thanks to Ablixa in Emily’s life, her face is hidden the entire time from her hair, and after climaxing she abruptly falls off Martin and out of the camera’s focus.

Depressed and lost with trying to restore her life, Emily tries to crash her car, ending up with a concussion in the ER (looking somehow very well put-together and not at all as if she had been in an airbag-deployed car accident) and a visit from the floor psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathon Banks (Jude Law). He softly asks if she tried to hurt herself, and rather than making her stay in the hospital for evaluation, agrees to her pleas to have her come to his office for regular appointments. She had seen a doctor in Greenwich, CT in the same manner since “that structure really helps with hopelessness,” she tells him. I already feel like she might be clued in to too much, but maybe it’s Mara’s calculated performance — the excited young wife when Martin is released, the poised woman at a fancy dinner, the catatonic body unable to respond to the everyday stimuli warranted by someone not feeling crushed by depression. She may always remain mysterious, whether she is alone or with Martin or Banks, but she remains so consistent that it just becomes who Emily Taylor is.

Back in their polished apartment, Martin and his mother (Ann Dowd) can’t believe Emily is going through depression again. The dialogue is flat, and Martin’s frustration feels weak. After she is given her first prescription, Emily starts to exhibit a lack of focus and a concerning demeanor. At work one day she rushes to the bathroom suddenly, and turns to vomit in a stall as her J.Crew-catalogue-esque boss walks in. Regarding Emily in her stall, the boss folds her arms and goes, “Aww.” I didn’t know people gave that sort of response to situations like these. Later, upon learning of the whole murder ordeal, this same nameless boss tells Banks, “God, it’s so tragic.” She sounds like an annoying teenager.

After she murders her husband while sleepwalking on the newest drug Ablixa, the case blows up the news as well as Dr. Banks’ practice – yet he mercilessly works on trying to figure out what happened that Emily cannot remember. Dr. Banks is the epitome of your perfect hero: charming, understanding, intelligent, and good-looking. This gentleman version of law and order is perfectly pulled off by Law, in a seamless transition from his role as the politely sterile Karenin, channeling professional drive and concern in the same accented-breath as when he is making the moves on his new wife Deirdre (Vinessa Shaw). He works when he doesn’t have to. He buys flowers for Deirdre and teaches his new stepson about dreams. He never once regards Emily in a predatorial or sexual way. He turns the other cheek when he is questioned by his partners, by the FBI. His biggest flaw is that he has none.

Deirdre, on the other hand, is frustrated while looking for a job, and openly does not seem to fully respect the nature of her husband’s profession – that sometimes patients require emergencies, such as when a teary Emily finds the two having coffee and desperately needs to talk to Jonathon about another suicide attempt. All the while Deirdre gives her a baffling and disdainful look, more shock than sympathy. Deirdre’s dialogue overall is the bare minimum of her functioning emotions, terse and pointless.

After the murder, Martin’s nameless mother goes to visit Emily where she is detained. When Emily gratefully, although flatly, says she thought her in-law would never want to see her again, Martin’s mother simply gushes in a confused state about how she doesn’t understand this could happen when all the people in the commercials are so happy, they’re all getting better. I laugh out loud in the movie theater at her earnest pleas. Doesn’t she know commercials use scripts and actors?

Meanwhile, Emily’s Greenwich-based doctor from four years ago, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is roped into the whole mess with repeatedly seeing Emily despite Banks being her new doctor. Siebert is the one who introduced Ablixa to Banks, and who has trusty insider juice on Emily (like her unmentioned miscarriage from four years ago). When she first meets Banks, she remarks that it’s a good thing Emily is seeing a man for a doctor. I immediately conclude that Emily was hot for doctor  but Siebert simply alludes it to the whole “daddy issues” thing. This is mentioned later in the film again, but we never actually learn anything at all about Emily’s “daddy issues.” Whenever Siebert is around Banks, I feel like she is oozing visible pheromones from her come-hither smirk, but it is a guarded professionalism that the successful psychiatrist employs, courtesy of Zeta-Jones’ soft-spoken compassion and, when necessary, portrayal of an unhinged negotiator.

There is a lot we don’t learn about, but by the time the film concludes (to some sort of upbeat exotic music that seems horribly placed for a dismally depressing last image), you’ve learned more than you realize. Just remember: drugs are not the answer here.

Shelby Shaw is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer and artist living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about moving the mundane. She tumbls here and twitters here.

"Rest Your Head" - Bat for Lashes (mp3)

"A Wall" - Bat for Lashes (mp3)

Friday
Mar232012

In Which We Sample Nostalgia From 2005

Our Actual Life

by ALICE BOLIN

21 Jump Street
dir. Phil Lord & Chris Miller
109 minutes

Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s remake of 21 Jump Street begins with a large title reading “YEAR 2005,” and Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) appears dressed in a style that has not been lampooned enough: peroxide blond Caesar haircut, white t-shirt, preposterous baggy jeans. It earns Schmidt the nickname “Not-So-Slim Shady,” and he is a dead ringer for that kid — every mid-2000s student body had someone who looked exactly like him. Just the sight of him in this get-up makes for its own comedic beat, but the humor catches us off guard — how could a look that was so ubiquitous to high school campuses and 7-11s seven years ago be so absurd now, such an easy laugh? Was 2005 really that long ago?

The point of 21 Jump Street is that it was a long time ago, and all the rules — of going to high school, or making a movie, or making a movie about high school — have changed since then. Schmidt and his partner Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) are undercover cops assigned to investigate the manufacture and distribution of a mysterious hallucinogenic drug at a high school, and they learn that the social order is not so clear-cut as when they were in school. Back in ’05, Jenko was a jock who made fun of the nerdy Schmidt, but this binary of cool and uncool doesn’t apply in the same way at the school they’re infiltrating. And what a relief that is for the film’s audience — who could possibly be interested in that dynamic anymore?

The cool kids at their new school are crunchy and progressive, led by Eric (Dave Franco), who was accepted to Berkeley “early admish” and has a biodiesel Mercedes that runs on left over grease from Hunan Palace. He tells Schmidt that he and his girlfriend are not exclusive — “I just don’t believe in possession, jah feel?” — and plays a song about Mother Earth on his acoustic guitar. Schmidt, once a member of his high school’s Juggling Society, is thrilled at how the tables have turned, as he catalogs with wonder the things that are now considered cool: liking comic books, environmental awareness, being tolerant. Former jock Jenko is not so excited. “Organized sports are so fascist. It makes me sick!” Eric yells after a track meet. “I don’t get this school,” Jenko says.

Jenko claims to know why high school has changed: Glee. “Fuck you, Glee!” he yells in the lunchroom. But we may see this more broadly as part of Judd Apatow’s late-2000s loser coup, a real life revenge of the nerds that we ultimately have to thank for the phrase “Academy Award Nominee Jonah Hill.” This shift is an important reason why 2005 is so distant: the string of films Apatow produced in 2007 and 2008 revolutionized the stoner comedy, the high school comedy, and the buddy comedy. It’s Apatow’s classic but short-lived Freaks and Geeks, resurrected and taking revenge on the network suits who didn’t get it, with Knocked Up and Pineapple Express (freaks) and Superbad (geeks) reclaiming things for themselves.

A key feature of these Apatow productions is the study in male best friendship. As with all depictions of close male companionship, there is an element of the homoerotic (Frodo and Sam, hi), but in the bromance, it is not read indirectly, with sexual tension permeating through the friends’ brooding or aggression. It is not properly a subtext at all — bromance relationships are overtly tender, and how gay they are for each other is, you know, the joke.

With Jenko and Schmidt, it’s true love: they strap gun holsters under their ivory tuxedoes as they prepare to take down the drug dealers once and for all at the prom. “Jenko,” Schmidt says, looking over at him. “Will you go to prom with me?” At the end of the film, Jenko jumps in front of Schmidt and takes a bullet in the shoulder. Schmidt leans over him on the ground and says sweetly, “I fucking cherish you.” After they are forced to take the mystery drug at school, they run to the bathroom, desperate to throw it up. Their attempt to purge each other, sticking their fingers in each other’s mouths and making loud choking groans, is kinky as hell.

Where 21 Jump Street succeeds is in applying new conventions to old genres. This is a reboot, after all. Nick Offerman makes a hilarious cameo as the gruff captain who assigns them to the undercover division. They are reviving an old undercover program from the ‘80s, he tells them — “The guys in charge of this stuff have no creativity or imagination. All they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.” The filmmakers seem aware of how silly remaking 21 Jump Street is — they share the reservations that have made reviewers and audiences unable to report that the movie is good without employing the word “actually.” “Report to Jump Street,” Offerman tells Jenko and Schmidt meaningfully. “37 Jump Street… No that doesn’t sound right.”

Ice Cube portrays the head of Jump Street, Captain Dickman (in the tradition of Ice-T, a once terrifying gangster rapper playing a police officer. Rappers get irony.), who describes himself as the stereotypical angry black captain. “Embrace your stereotypes,” he advises the future undercover officers. In some ways, the film employs this advice, taking the path of least opposites-attract comedy resistance. There is the standard training montage as Jenko and Schmidt go through the police academy, with brainy Schmidt helping Jenko with his exams, and sporty Jenko helping Schmidt with the physical requirements. Each has what the other lacks — it is the movie’s prevailing cliché. At the end of the film, Jenko describes what he has learned about covalent bonds in chemistry class. “It’s when atoms share electrons,” he explains. “They both need what the other has, and that makes them stick together.”

In other cases, though, expected tropes are played with and subverted. Ellie Kemper plays the chemistry teacher who is instantly, ravenously taken with Jenko. Her deranged advances are scene stealing, but she figures into the movie’s plot almost not at all. It is as if she exists simply because a horny teacher is something that would exist in a high school movie — even if it’s a trope that the filmmakers ultimately decide not to make use of. Other characters are comically under-used — the other officers in the Jump Street division, played by Rye Rye and Dakota Johnson, are shown from time to time wearing cheerleading or marching band uniforms and bragging about the cases they’ve closed, seemingly as effective at their jobs as Schmidt and Jenko are inept. We get the feeling that there is any number of possible storylines, that a lot of the action is happening just off-screen.

It turns out that 21 Jump Street is ideal for the tongue-in-cheek remake, as it was both a high school drama and a police procedural — two genres that are ripe for parody. But the crime fighting in the film seems less influenced by 21 Jump Street than the maverick cops in Die Hard, a franchise that envisioned police officers who said the word “motherfucker” more than any had before. The main bad guys in 21 Jump Street are a gang of motorcycling drug dealers with face tattoos, and they aren’t really sources of comedy — they are straightforwardly terrifying. As the film takes a turn for the graphically violent toward the end, there is another layer of genre that the filmmakers are referring to and reckoning with: the action film.

These different genre elements mingle and combust. In the final shoot-out at a hotel room during the prom, two members of the motorcycle gang reveal themselves to be undercover DEA agents — played by Johnny Depp and his former 21 Jump Street cast-mate Peter DeLuise. Depp’s character yells at Schmidt and Jenko for ruining the DEA investigation. “We had no idea,” Schmidt apologizes. “You’re an amazing actor, man.” Schmidt and Jenko reveal that they’re in the Jump Street division, forging a camaraderie with Depp’s and DeLuise. “You know we were actually Jump Street?” Depp’s character asks. All this self-consciousness is too much and Depp and Grieco are both shot to death during this banter. It is an inevitable and perversely satisfying consequence of taking on so many influences: the features of one genre will not allow for the features of another.

At one point, Jenko and Schmidt are in a car chase with the drug dealers, and they shoot holes in an oil tanker and a truck carrying cans of propane. In both cases, they’re amazed that the truck does not blow up — ultimately it’s a collision with a chicken truck that causes the explosion. This dynamic, of the explosions they anticipate versus the one they actually get, speaks to the careful game of expectations. It’s a kind of gentle parody: if they are poking fun at the conventions of genre, it is as admiring as it is critical. “We’re like in the end of Die Hard right now, but it’s our actual life,” Schmidt says to Jenko after their final triumph over the bad guys. In the end, there’s something remarkably hopeful about 21 Jump Street — that a comedy can use the best parts of Die Hard and leave the rest. That high school can be something more than jocks and nerds, and a high school movie can be too.

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about Anna Pavlova.

"The Chamber & the Valves" - Dry the River (mp3)

"Weights & Measures" - Dry the River (mp3)

Friday
Feb242012

In Which We Are Simply A Natural At This

Piece of Cake

by DURGA CHEW-BOSE

Rachel McAdams has Olympic caliber poise. Somewhat jelled, her smile is red-lettered, her jaw, prominent, and her body, sprightly. It's as if she just landed a double axel or performed a clean dismount from the balance beam, no sweat. In romantic roles her male co-stars regularly lift her, carry her, or nimbly swing her, but I suspect it’s McAdams who supplies any, if not all, cantilevered grace.

What lends most to screen is her strikingly nostalgic features. Owing perhaps to the alien twinkle in her eyes, her dimples, or her downy skin, McAdams appears especially saturated on celluloid; especially Sirk. Like Jane Wyman she is puckish and beautiful, and at times lost in thought. Both women look buffed — a near satin sheen. Both women have incredibly expressive foreheads.

In The Vow she plays Paige, a woman who after emerging from a car accident induced coma, suffers from amnesia. She cannot remember the last four years of her life which include an artsy, permissive turn — sculpting, air-dried hair, loft living — and more importantly includes her marriage to Leo played by Channing Tatum. As a result she wakes confused and returns to her old life: estranged parents, law school, quotidian suburban customs, blueberry mojitos, a sister’s wedding, sweater sets, and Scott Speedman. Unfortunately, not much happens. Despite the potential for something far creepier, sadder, syrupy and even peculiar, the film bops from scene to scene as if dispirited and mooney, much like Tatum-speak and Tatum-mien.

Ironically, it’s McAdams’ performance as a character whose life has been erased, that provides the most vitality. She has filmic gumption and a bounty of grins and laughs that rescue stale moments. (Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock pioneered that particular bail out; McAdams and Anne Hathaway have revived it). Moreover, Paige has whims. She resists but ultimately surrenders to tickling, she feeds a stray cat, she buries herself in an oversized sweatshirt, and offers plump strawberries to Leo’s friends at breakfast. Her wedding dress was pink and her vows were written on a coffee shop menu.

Regardless of these parts, Leo and Paige’s love story plays out like a music video. Or the music video for a song on The Vow’s original soundtrack. Or something Josh Hartnett may have done in 2004. In many ways, its finest function is as a catalog of required proportions: McAdams’ hands are the size of Tatum’s neck and when he scoops her up, she screeches. He is shirtless for nearly forty percent of the film. She wears a classic rotation of outfits: pajamas (his), pajamas (hers), formal wedding attire, messy studio clothes, lace underwear. She has a six-to-one, charismatic to gross, ratio of habits. Even so, they are never that gross.

The camera loves McAdams. It is her moon. Tina Fey admits learning from her throughout Mean Girls. "That was the first movie that I had ever been on. And I would watch – I would stand with the director sometimes and watch her scenes. And I would say to the director: Like, that’s really small. Is she doing it? And then watching her on film, watching the dailies, I’m like: Oh, yes, she’s amazing. She’s a film actor. She’s not pushing. And so I kind of learned that lesson from watching her…"

What Fey recalls, those "small", minor mannerisms are McAdams’ register of finely controlled facial muscles. She can call upon each one as if summoning an invisible series of nylon strings secured to her cheekbones, chin, temples, ears. The slightest twitch or eye roll, easy! The faintest pout or cartoonish gaze, done! A toothy hee-haw, no problem! A single, bulging vein, why not! She is a natural. She knows when to elongate her neck, how to scurry in heels, how far to dip back when laughing, how to kiss passionately and dispassionately, and how to eat cake as if it were more satisfying than the man sharing the slice with her.

McAdams’ performances are truly athletic. And unlike Keira Knightley or Scarlett Johansson, whose acting we often watch as curious spectators, (anthropological!), too far removed from their traits to relate, wondering perhaps how they will pull it off, McAdams, we simply cheer.

There’s a moment near the end of The Family Stone, where McAdams — who plays Amy, the cranky and defensive, but ultimately very loving "mean sister" — is sitting in an ambulance on Christmas day with the guy who "popped her cherry” years ago. His name is Brad Stevenson (Paul Schneider). He is shy, mumbles and has a slight swallow. He’s an EMT who wrapped her present in a clock radio box. "Don’t worry, it’s not a clock radio." She’s gruff and impatient but appreciates the gesture, and perhaps even him, once more. Inside the box is a snow globe that McAdams cups in her hands as if it were hidden treasure. As if she was a child. As if she might, in that moment, be living inside the stillness of a snow globe. She smiles and quietly exclaims, "Wow, Brad.” The scene is interrupted by yet another madcap Stone family moment, but the peaceful way Amy appreciates Brad, the way McAdams says "Wow" as if it were her first word, chimes until the end of the film

As Diane Keaton, who starred with McAdams in both The Family Stone and Morning Glory, remarked, "She's like a violin. She can do anything, and she can play anything. She's a dynamo, but she's also soft. She can be bitchy but also light. She can do serious drama; she can do comedy. She has a lot of things going on, which makes her absolutely captivating.”

At the 2005 MTV Movie Awards, McAdams and Gosling won the award for Best Kiss. She in a bustier and jeans and he chewing gum and wearing a white Darfur t-shirt, the then couple reenacted their Notebook kiss as Maroon 5’s "She Will be Loved” played. The crowd went crazy, Lindsay Lohan screamed "Oh my God!” and Hillary Duff giggled with her sister. The entire two minutes are a pop culture capsule and emphasize McAdams’ irrefutable appeal. As she walks off the stage with Gosling, who picks up her blazer and coolly throws it over his shoulder, McAdams looks flush, a little embarrassed, but triumphant with her Golden Popcorn, silly sure, nevertheless, a medal.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She last wrote in these pages about Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Mad Mad Me" - Bonnie Prince Billy & Mariee Sioux (mp3)

"Bird Child" - Bonnie Prince Billy & Mariee Sioux (mp3)

"Loveskulls" - Bonnie Prince Billy & Mariee Sioux (mp3)